Even if Centre okayed it now, it would take many years for mission to materialise; Institute of Aerospace Medicine remains clueless about training facility for astronauts

Awaiting the Union government’s nod but already facing other delay-inducing obstacles, the much-touted manned space mission of India will not take place in the near future – not in 2017 as was expected; not even by 2021 as reported recently. In fact, with the prolonged delays, there is a fair chance that the mission may not take off at all.
The humungous Rs 12,400 crore mission – which entails putting a two-astronaut crew into a low-Earth orbit for a week and returning them safely to Earth – is nowhere close to starting its astronaut selection and training exercise. And senior Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists are not yet convinced about the safety aspects of the launch and spacecraft to go ahead with the mission even if the Union cabinet were to give the go-ahead anytime now.
“Setting up the facility, equipping it with human centrifuge machines, zero-gravity simulators and a range of equipment needed for training astronauts would need time,” a senior official from Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), which is tasked with selecting and training Indian astronauts for the mission, told Bangalore Mirror, requesting anonymity.
To indicate how much time would be consumed in the selection-cum-training process in India, he cited the example of the US’s National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). NASA has called for applications from a fresh batch of aspiring astronauts for Mars One and International Space Station missions over two months from December 14 to mid-February. The list of selected candidates for NASA will be announced only in mid-2017. The training of astronauts would take a minimum of 18 months to two years. “And we are trying it out for the first time,” he said.
While the mission’s budget has not found its place in the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) -as the Centre’s nod is still awaited – the Human Space Flight (HSF) programme will be pushed to only after the 13th Five Year Plan (2017-2022).
But Isro is in no hurry, while the IAM – which will select and train four finally-chosen astronauts – remains in the dark over what has happened to the land in the north of Bengaluru to set up an exclusive astronaut training centre, an Isro-IAM collaboration.
“Also, we are not sure whether the astronauts will be from Indian Air Force (IAF) or Isro.” He said it is crucial to know that because the training duration for IAF fighter pilots would be considerably shorter as they are already exposed to strenuous flight training unlike Isro candidates. “Besides IAF fighter pilots are physically and medically fitter to be astronauts,” he said.
“As of now I don’t think IAF is even involved in the mission,” he said, adding that Isro had not kept IAM in the loop about the latest progress on the mission’s preparations. IAM falls under IAF’s jurisdiction. It is the only centre in India certified to select and train astronauts after NASA and Russian Space Agency-recognised IAM as the centre for medical evaluation of astronauts and to conduct life sciences experiments in space in India in 1989.
But Isro doesn’t seem to be perturbed by the delays. “We are not even talking about it (the HSF programme),” said Isro’s head of press and publicity division, DP Karnik. “As of now, the Human Space Flight programme is not a priority for us. It is not on our prime list. We are only focussing on developing critical technologies that would be required for the mission. We are in no hurry at all,” he added.
According to the HSF project director Unnikrishnan Nair, ensuring a successful launch and safe return of the astronauts are the prime objectives and Isro will take no risks on that front.
Isro on December 18, 2014 successfully tested the experimental flight of the planned manned mission launcher, GSLV Mk-III. The 3,775-kg crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) separated from the upper stage of GSLV Mk-III at 126 km altitude and 600-odd kg crew module re-entered the atmosphere to safely land in the Bay of Bengal with parachutes almost 21 minutes after lift-off.
Although the test was a success, the 2010 back-to-back GSLV launch failures is making Isro scientists extra cautious, a senior Isro scientist said.
However, with the prolonged delays, the space scientists are also bracing for the mission not to take off at all, but are not saying so openly at present. They feel ultimately it may be preferred to send Indian astronauts on board US or Russian launchers for deep-space missions rather than send them on indigenous ones.