'When the Americans are talking about colonising Mars by 2030, India cannot be lagging behind.'
Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi in his Independence Day address to the nation last month, declared that India's first manned space mission, Gaganyaan, would be launched by 2022, marking India's 75th Independence Day.
Will this be a reality? Are we prepared for Gaganyaan?
"In the field of space technology, we are on par with the developed countries and to keep up with that, a human space mission is absolutely necessary," former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
On August 15, the prime minister spoke about sending a man to the space by 2022. Is it too ambitious? Is it achievable?
It has been a dream of ISRO for a decade, and many of the critical technology development has already taken place. So, you can say, a small beginning has been made in the programme.
The prime minister has given an ambitious goal of 2022 for an Indian astronaut to be flying, and this announcement comes as a big boost to the whole programme.
It is really a challenging task with such a tight schedule, but looking at ISRO's track record, I am sure they will be able to achieve this.
The only thing is, they may have to depend on some friendly countries to train our astronauts in the initial phase.
India is described as a top country in space research. How far behind are we from, say, Russia or America?
I would say the only missing element in our space mission was man to space.
India's space research was started with the goal of achieving self-reliance in space technology and application of this technology for the benefit of humankind.
When Dr Vikram Sarabhai started the space programme, a manned mission was not on the agenda.
But we perfected launch technology, satellite technology, etc.
We used space technology to solve many problems affecting the common man like television channels or communication or information about weather, earth observation for resource management etc.
So, we can say we have fulfilled Dr Sarabhai's dream.
The next logical step is to develop human space flight.
You mean, it's not because we were behind in technology but because our priorities were different that we didn't try to send a man to space earlier.
Our priority was to use the money effectively to achieve self-reliance in space technology and also apply the technology for the benefit of the common man.
What can we achieve by sending a man to space?
Right now, we depend on remote monitoring of most of the space experiments, whether it is observing the planet Earth, galaxies or the stars. These certainly have limitations.
If one has to make a real time decision while observing such phenomenon, the presence of man will certainly make a difference.
It will give a big boost to the scientific pursuit of the study of the planetary system and earth sciences.
Even for military needs, if you want to have a close look at some specific areas, when a man is there on space, he can make real time decisions on which direction to look or where to concentrate.
It is not that simple to send a man to space.
It is not that we need only a life support system, we need to understand the human body in a much better way.
So, we will have to do a lot of advanced research in medical science. This will enhance our knowledge of the human body which in turn will help us find better health care solutions. This will have a lot of spin-off effects in the medical field.
Then comes the technology itself, the basic technology of making a compact capsule with oxygen, water, food supply and waste management, an environment where a human being can survive for months together, can be used to handle hazardous situations too if the need arises.
Then, of course, man has this ambition to explore Moon and Mars.
What we need is the scientific basis and also the knowledge to exploit the resources; maybe an alternate habitat for planet Earth!
All these are long term goals for which we have to invest now.
When the Americans are talking about colonising Mars by 2030, an advanced nation like India cannot be lagging behind.
In the field of space technology, we are on par with the developed countries and to keep up with that, a human space mission is absolutely necessary.
Is this the only area we are lagging behind compared to the countries that are advanced in space technology?
When you talk about new technology, the cost of the launch will come down if you have a recoverable and reusable launch system.
There are R&D efforts going on in this area at ISRO, but we have to do a lot more.
Then comes the advance propulsion system like semi cryogenic rockets. We have started research using iron propulsion.
But when you are talking about inter-planetary travel, we may have to use even nuclear propulsion. We have to make some beginning in these areas.
Today, the reliability of the launch is around 95% to 98%, but when you want to send a man into orbit, it has to be better than 99.9%.
Then, there is a challenge in developing a communication system using high speed data transmission through satellites and all-weather earth observation capability.
If you want to achieve these goals, we have to invest in advanced technologies.
When you achieve all these, the spin-off that will benefit society will also be tremendous.
The ISRO chairman said ISRO had already done development of a crew module, crew escape, environment control, life support system, space suit and also the GSLV-Mark 111. Do you feel we are prepared for a 2022 man-mission?
So far, we were gradually inching forward. Now that the PM has given a boost, it will pick up momentum and the 2022 goal will be achieved.
When we spoke earlier, you had said that India is among the top five nations in space technology.
How much have moved ahead in space technology in the last one decade or so?
There was a lull of 4 or 5 years in the last decade when UPA-2 was in power. It affected our advancement to some extent. Otherwise, we would have been sending a man to space by this time.
I am glad Prime Minister Modiji has given top priority to space technology.
We can confidently say we are one among the top five nations in space technology.
We are there along with the US, Russia, Europe and China. We are on par with these nations as far as technology is concerned.
Once we send a manned mission to space, we will bridge the gap and be competing with them in the emerging arena.
A manned mission will be the main driver for ISRO's future technology development programmes.