Something more foolish than completing phase 3 trials in 1.5 months?

That the Union government and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had entered into a more intimate, but not necessarily more beneficial, relationship became evident in 2019 when then ISRO chairman K. Sivan trotted out a series of dubious claims to massage the fate of the Chandrayaan 2 mission, whose lunar surface component had obviously failed. Anyone who follows Indian spaceflight news is familiar with the adage ‘space is hard’ and all of them abide by it (there’s an argument that we shouldn’t extend the same courtesy to more mature space programmes). Yet Sivan was determined to salvage even more, going so far at one point to call the whole mission (orbiter + lander) a “98% success”.

Shortly after news of the lander’s fate became clear to ground control, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present as the chief guest, consoled Sivan with his customary hug even as ISRO at large withdrew into a shell of silence, offering only the occasional scrap of what it knew had happened to the lander. The vacuum of information allowed a trickle of speculation, but which was soon overwhelmed by a swell of conspiracies and, as is inevitable these days, a virtual barrier erected by right-wing commentators and bots that suppressed all questions asking for more information in the public domain. This ISRO, and the attendant public experience of India’s spaceflight programme, was markedly different from the ISRO of before – a feeling that Sivan deepened with other claims about the amount of time ISRO would need to realise its ‘Gaganyaan’ human spaceflight mission, which has already been delayed by three years. Sivan had unknowingly underestimated the amount, had deliberately communicated a shorter duration, had communicated the actual time but to which government officials couldn’t agree, or something else happened. The first possibility would’ve been unlikely were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic – but then it would seem that even if Sivan’s successor, S. Somanath, were to push back and ask for more time, the government has made up its mind: New Indian Express reported on December 8 that ISRO had received “instructions from the government” to send Indian astronauts to space on its GSLV Mk III rocket before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections! This has to be the second most unintelligent decision the government has made in the limited context of large-scale undertakings involving science and the lives of people, after Balram Bhargava’s subsequently rescinded threat in mid-2020 for researchers to complete the Covaxin phase 3 clinical trial in time for Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day address less than two months away. It’s not clear if the government will rescind its demand of ISRO; the report itself is brief and doesn’t mention any resistance from the spaceflight mission team. But how this squares with minister Jitendra Singh’s statement in parliament last week, that the first crewed mission will only liftoff in late 2024 and that “crew safety is paramount”, is unclear. Assuming that the government will continue to push ISRO to launch in the first half of 2024, a flight based on a schedule modified to accommodate the demand may surpass the foolishness of Bhargava’s ask.

Every human spaceflight mission is inordinately complex. ISRO will have to design and test every component of the launch vehicle, crew capsule, mission profile, ground systems and crew management beforehand, in different conditions. It has to anticipate all possible failure scenarios and arrange for both failure-avoidance systems and failsafes. The timeline may have been more flexible in the early days of the undertaking, when the systems being tested were less composite, but not so today. When the government “instructs” ISRO to launch the ‘Gaganyaan’ crewed flight before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections (which are around 18 months away), it’s practically asking ISRO to devise a testing schedule that will be completed – irrespective of the tests’ outcomes – in this period all so it can use the mission’s outcomes (developed with government funds) as part of its election campaign. It’s effectively asking ISRO to sideline science, safety standards and good sense. Imagine one safety test going awry, and which ISRO might in other circumstances have liked to fix and redo. With “instructions” like those of the government, it won’t be able to – jeopardising the mission itself as well as the lives of the astronauts and the reputation of the Indian space programme in the international arena. The government simply shouldn’t make such a frighteningly asinine demand, and instead allow ISRO to take all the time it needs (within reasonable limits) to successfully complete its first human spaceflight mission.

ISRO has of late also embarked on programmes to increase its commercial revenue, even though it’s a “space research organisation”. If a crewed mission fails because the organisation let itself be cowed by the national government into trimming its testing process, all so a political party could use the launch as part of its poll propaganda, all of the organisation’s other rockets will confront doubts about their safety and whether they won’t threaten satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A lot of ISRO’s work on ‘Gaganyaan’ has also happened to the exclusion of other launch vehicles and scientific missions, including (but not limited to) the reusable launch vehicle, the semi-cryogenic engine and the Aditya L1 space-probe. Its low rate of production of new rockets recently forced it to postpone the Chandrayaan 3 mission to accommodate the OneWeb satellites (in a commercial contract) in its launch manifest. Setting aside questions of ISRO’s relatively low funding and internal priorities, even if ‘Gaganyaan’ succeeds out of luck, the prospects of all of these adversely affected projects will suffer at least further reputational consequences. If ‘Gaganyaan’ fails, the future will be a lot worse.

Just as the Covaxin incident opened a window into how the Indian government was thinking about the COVID-19 vaccination drive and the role of science in shaping it, a demand of ISRO to launch realise its human spaceflight mission with a hard deadline opens a window into the Indian government’s considerations on ‘Gaganyaan’. The BJP government revived ISRO’s proposal for a human spaceflight mission in 2014, approved it in 2017 and allocated Rs 10,000 crore in 2018. Did it do so only because of how the mission’s success, should it come to pass, would help the party win elections? It’s desirable for a party’s goals and the country’s goals to be aligned – until the former crimps the latter. But more importantly, should we be concerned about the government’s heuristic for selecting and rejecting which spaceflight missions to fund? And should we be concerned about which publicly funded projects it will seek more accountability on?

There have been standing committee and audit reports calling ISRO out for slow work on this or that matter but the government at large, especially the incumbent one since 2019, has taken pains to maintain a front of amicability. It might be mildly amusing if a political party promises in its pre-poll manifesto to get ISRO in shape, and then in line, by readying a reusable launch vehicle for commercial missions by 2025 or launching five scientific missions in the next four years – but standing in the way of that is more than a knack to translate between public sentiment and technological achievement. It requires breaking a longstanding tradition of cosying up to ISRO as much as granting it autonomy while simultaneously underfunding it. We need the national government, most of all, to pay more attention to all ISRO projects on which there is evidence of dilly-dallying, and grapple honestly with the underlying issues, rather than poke its nose in the necessarily arduous safety-rating process of a crewed mission.

Featured image: A GSLV Mk III rocket lifts off on its first orbital flight, July 2017. Credit: ISRO.