India’s space agency tested on Thursday a crew escape system (CES), a capsule for a human spaceflight mission that ejects from a rocket if it explodes on the launch pad.
The CES is a series of technology building blocks that the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is developing for an eventual mission to carry astronauts or vyomanauts to space. It also is a crucial emergency escape measure designed to quickly pull the spacecraft that houses the astronauts to a safe distance from the launch vehicle in the event of a rocket explosion.
In 1986, a US space shuttle Challenger tore apart within 73 seconds of launch, killing seven US astronauts.
Isro has so far built a capsule that can re-enter from space, space suits, food for astronauts in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Organisation, and is working on an astronaut-training facility on the outskirts of Bengaluru. It is also roping in Indian Air Force pilots to identify the first set of astronauts for India.
However, the agency also needs to build the right environmental control facilities that can house three astronauts in the capsule.
So far, the government, which has granted ₹145 crore to do initial studies for a manned mission to space, is yet to approve the project that could potentially cost over $ 2 billion. “This is a developmental activity that eventually will be used for a human spaceflight,” said AS Kiran Kumar, former chairman of Isro.
He said a human space flight is an expensive proposition and lots of space faring activities could be done through robotic missions or unmanned flights.
Isro has already tested a scaleddown version of its reusable launch vehicles and is working on a larger unmanned shuttle that would be hurled on a rocket to space, completing its mission in delivering spacecraft and land like an aircraft in Sriharikota. This, it calls a ‘Twostage-to-orbit’ – a concept that it expects to bring down the cost of access to space.
India has been working on human space flight for over a decade, but it still does not have a rocket powerful enough to carry astronauts into space.
Isro is operationalising its geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle Mk-3 (GSLV-MK-3) later this year. This rocket could potentially carry around eight tonnes spacecraft to lower earth orbit. However, it has to be human rated or make it so safe that the possiblity of error could be one in a million.
“Even the GSLV-Mk3 would also be smaller. We need a heavier rocket so that the manned mission,” said an Isro official.
Isro said that crew module reached an altitude of nearly 2.7 km after it was ejected from the rocket on Thursday. Nearly 300 sensors recorded various mission performance parameters during the test flight. Three recovery boats are being exercised to retrieve the module as part of the recovery protocol.