Ex-ISRO Officials Praise Chinese Human Launch, Rue Lost Opportunity

By Douglas Messier

Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

While the Chinese celebrate the launch of a three-member crew to the Tiangong-1 space station, two former chairman of India’s space agency ISRO are looking on with both admiration and regret. As China’s program has moved slowly but steadily forward, India’s plans for human space missions have slipped from around 2016 into the early to mid-2020s.

India’s top space scientists praised China’s maiden mission of manned docking of its space lab even as New Delhi’s own human space flight programme seems to have lost momentum.

“It’s a wonderful thing that has happened,” ex-Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, U R Rao told PTI here. “Essentially, they are making sure that they are going ahead systematically with manned mission programme”. …

He said India has not started any manned mission programme at all. “We have to have much larger and much more powerful launch vehicle,” Rao said.

Another former ISRO Chairman, G Madhavan Nair said China is marching forward in manned space programme with a lot of aggression….

“We had picked up momentum after the Chandrayaan mission. Precious three years have been lost. As far as India is concerned, we have missed a great opportunity. By this time, we would gone half-way through (if we started three years ago),” Nair said.

Nair’s claim is rather suspect. Chandrayaan-1 was a small lunar orbiter that failed nine months into a two-year mission. It’s success certainly gave ISRO political momentum at the time, but it’s a far cry from being able to pursue a vastly more difficult human program.

As much as Nair would like to believe that ISRO could have moved ahead aggressively to catch up with China if he had continued as ISRO chairman (he left without explanation in October 2009 about two months after Chandrayaan-1’s mission ended), I have serious doubts about that based on ISRO’s overall performance, which has been plagued by technological failures and program slips. My best guess is that if ISRO had seriously started on a human program back in 2009, they’d be running three years behind schedule by now.

The main problem, as Rao points out, is that ISRO has no rockets capable of lifting astronauts into orbit. In fact, the space agency can’t even launch medium-sized spacecraft reliably. ISRO’s largest rocket, GSLV, has placed three satellites into Bay of Bengal, two spacecraft into lower-than-planned orbits, and only two other payloads into their proper orbits.

ISRO has managed only seven GSLV launches in 11 years, which is hardly an aggressive schedule. By the time the next GSLV flies in December, two years will have passed since the the rocket’s most recent flight, which was a failure. Meanwhile, development of the much larger GLSV-Mark III, which could carry astronauts, is moving very slowly. It is schedule for its first test flight this year, but the schedule shows a long gap before the next one.

A nation that hasn’t mastered liquid-fuel rocket technology has little business going forward with an aggressive human spaceflight program. It’s easy to imagine that the bureaucrats and politicians who formulate India’s overall budget looked at ISRO’s record and decided not to give the green light for such an expensive and complex program.

For India to truly join the ranks of the world’s major space powers, it has to be able to access space on a regular basis with something more powerful than the solid-fuel PSLV rocket. Until it does, the country will flounder in the backwater of the Space Age.