It has now been several years since the idea of sending one or more Indians into space on an Indian rocket was mooted. The “report of the working group on space” for the XI Plan (2007-2012) included “critical technologies for manned mission” as a “major thrust area in space transportation systems.” Further in the same report, the justification for manned flights is for “material processing, building large space stations, servicing and refueling of satellites in space and the potential of space to augment our energy resources.”
Since 2014 the manned programme has received significant impetus and quite clearly emphasized by the Prime Minister on 15 Aug 2018 from the Red Fort. He said, “I feel proud to announce that very soon as a part of our manned space mission, we shall be sending an Indian into space…the fourth such nation to have launched a successful manned space mission.”
Undoubtedly, there is much that has been achieved in the Indian space programme (ISP) and there is much more that needs to be done. In this article, a different approach is suggested.Human space flight (HSF) need not be a priority area or even a near and mid-term future plan. There are quite a few good reasons for this, even as there are some advantages of HSF. At the same time while there has generally been a fair amount of celebratory mention of HSF in media there has hardly been any debate. Rather, almost all viewpoints are about the “how” and “wow” aspects and very little of the “why” or “why not” discourse that leads to more beneficial decisions. Nonetheless, the need to debate is important.
The “Yuri Gagarin” and “Neil Armstrong” Moments are Gone
Symbolism and Substance.The symbolism of HSF was seized by the Soviets by sending cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The next truly impressive step was by Neil Armstrong in 1969 by landing on the moon. The Soviets had earlier “inaugurated” the space age by sending the first satellite, Sputnik, into Earth orbit. In the hundreds of humans who have travelled to space, much of significance has certainly been achieved. In fact, so much has been achieved that we tend to ignore two consequent aspects. The first is that there is little symbolic gain in sending an Indian into space on an Indian space ship. It might matter domestically for some time, but the “feel good” factors are essentially ephemeral. Coming as it does decades after the “Gagarin and Armstrong” moments, any international praise that may be received would be proforma. Second, there would be very little of substance to be gained from an Indian HSF that would not be possible to gain from the experience of the decades of HSF by the Russians and Americans.
Despite the “space-race” between the two cold war adversaries, their willingness to cooperate in space was quite astounding. Negotiations started amidst the final phases of the American bombings and combat in Vietnam and the Apollo-Soyuz docking took place in July 1975. In the decades that followed, cooperation in HSF led to substantial achievements. In a sense given their own roles in space cooperation, there is little that ISRO and other Indian organizations cannot glean from the body of HSF knowledge that could be made available or extrapolated.
Ubiquity of HSF
In the last six decades, quite literally hundreds of men and women have flown into space. It hardly makes news. It would be very surprising if beyond a few “space watchers” many would be aware of the discovery of a rupture in Sept 2018 of a 2mm hole in the skin of the Soyuz MS-09 and the repairs carried out that prevented a possible catastrophe. How many would know that the mission landed on 20 Dec in Kazakhstan with a Russian, NASA and European Space Agency astronauts? In 1984, the level of national pride felt when the first Indian went into space was palpable. As a young naval officer I felt that pride fully. Even so, our astronaut was the third Asian who had followed one each from Vietnam and Mongolia riding Soviet rockets. The tally goes up if Russian cosmonauts belonging to the Asian regions of the former USSR are included. The point to note here is that even in the early 1980’s HSF was commonplace and until recently, ubiquitous. Even by sending a woman astronaut into space in the 2022 HSF would have marginal benefits on social issues or as a morale booster for women. There are perhaps so many other ongoing programmes for women’s safety and equality on Indian soil itself that need greater attention and implementation. In HSF as in several other areas of governmental and societal activity in our country, we need to have a pragmatic assessment of the limits of symbolism trumping substance and rhetoric blurring reality.
In parts, discussion in India about HSF sometimes highlights the scientific and technical benefits that may accrue for future space exploration, setting up of space stations, etc. Rarely has this discussion examined the alternatives that unmanned space flights (USF, to coin an abbreviation) provide. Secondly, we may need to study carefully the reports coming out of the West– and that includes Russia– of the very arguably limited benefits that have come from HSF. In fact, there is declining enthusiasm for HSF in the West, even if there are occasional spurts of enthusiasm to try something new, especially space tourism. Robotics, sensors, communications and data handling has improved so significantly that humans can play lesser roles in space, but at much greater cost, higher risk and with lower efficiency. Studies from NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and in other quarters have discussed these angles. Certainly, there have been technological benefits derived from the systems, processes and higher reliabilities needed for sending, keeping and bringing astronauts back. The reality of this is that much is already common knowledge of mankind that can be tapped for incorporation into USF and someday, if the reasons for HSF become truly compelling. Insistence on overplaying the scientific and technological benefits of HSF is primarily rhetoric. Second, ISRO already has achieved very high standards of reliability, engineering excellence and confidence in future space applications in the unmanned ISPs. Therefore, why not progress on the substance of harnessing space than the symbolism of manned flights?
One last point about science, engineering and technology: The human in the loop on Earth is what has made and will continue to make HSF and USF possible. She or he, the human, is still the most critical factor. Putting it another way, “Hidden Figures” on ground have deserved the greater share of credit for HSF than have the astronauts, the “Right Stuff”. (Readers would recall these as the title of books by Margot Lee Shetterly and Tom Wolfethat were also made into fine movies.
Adventure and National Prestige
There are elements of both these attributes in HSF, but there is not much benefit in exaggerating them. The reality is that HSF is so closely scripted, so intricately supported and made as technologically safe as is possible that the “wow boxes” of high adventure have perhaps all been ticked over the past few decades. And prestige? One could argue that in space programmes, in military hardware or even in infrastructure, national achievements that result in genuine advancement are far more important than prestige. The former addresses and advances substance, the latter symbolism.In the past few months and even just a few days ago, ISRO has demonstrated repeatedly its achievements in USF.
Compared to other nations, it may be equally true that the cost of sending men or women into space may be lesser for India. Consider three thoughts, however. First– and one that has been submitted earlier– if the benefits are few, then cost is itself less relevant in the scheme of things. Second, we should cost everything possible to account for. For example, the whole cost that may be borne in selecting astronauts and then training them. Factor the cost of each supporting individual, of which the Indian Air Force may provide many like doctors, standby personnel etc. One can say this because government programmes can ignore indirect costs, especially manpower costs of supporting organizations etc. Third, we need to always determine opportunity costs that may ensue with interviewees, selectees, trainees and supporting personnel devoting significant days/months/ years to perhaps just one mission when taken away from their original tasking, test flying for instance?
Thereafter, what are the stated consequential costs of further missions? Would the Indian HSF be a one-off mission? Would consequent missions be part of a well- crafted space strategy? Underlying all this are two final money factors. First, how much will it really cost and do we have that kind of money to spend. Second, something that could emerge more clearly from the internal deliberations and larger debate: Are there alternative methods of achieving strategic aims for the really required civilian and military benefits from the use of space? Would USF be that alternative, perhaps at a lesser cost and greater effectiveness and progress along the curve? What would, therefore be the assessed cost-benefit differentials between HSF and USF?
The Indian space programme has matured well and has achieved a great deal of real significance in the skies. Through a “solid thrust” for further USF missions, our scientists, engineers, public and private organizations as well as companies along with the armed forces can achieve almost every strategic outcome in multiple fields. These fields span the good of humankind as well as deterrent strength for India. Thereafter, perhaps someday in the more distant future, should HSF really become necessary, these very same achievements of USF could be deployed to send Indians into pioneering missions beyond outer space.
An interesting and apt comparison was made a while back that the Indian Mars Mission “Mangalyaan” was accomplished in less than the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster on space travel. Human space flight in the near future would have to be evaluated not as Mission Possible (which one can be confident it is) but by the parameter of “Mission Necessary?”
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