Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gimme Space: Dogfight over the hot seat

IAF pilots and Isro scientists make for unlikely adversaries . But there's a secret war going on between them over who should get right of passage as India prepares to fire off its Rs 12,400-crore manned space mission. The project, steadily taking shape at various Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) units throughout the country, has both IAF personnel and scientists claiming they are best qualified to man the initial flight from Sriharikota, tentatively planned for 2015-2017 .

Though the controversy has not yet become public, it is learnt that both groups are claiming space to be their natural domain. It all began when Isro chairman G Madhavan Nair announced on August 9, 2007, that the agency was seriously considering a human space flight mission. This came exactly a year after about 80 scientists at a meeting in Bangalore, attended among others by the country's first cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, said India would have to launch a manned spacecraft if it had to assert itself as a global space power.

For Sharma, part of the joint Indo-Soviet manned space mission in April 1984, the debate is a non-starter . Convinced that there should be an IAF crew on board, he said in a recent interview to TOI, "Till the various systems and technologies in the spacecraft are proven and validated, the mission should be flown only by air force test pilots since they are experienced in evaluating systems" .

Told that two Isro engineers , P Radhakrishnan and Nagapathi C Bhatt, and not pilots had been chosen to fly in Nasa's 1986 space shuttle, Sharma explained that the shuttle's technologies had already been established .

"Please remember that John Young, who was a part of the twoman crew which flew the first space shuttle, 'Columbia' , on April 12, 1981, was an air force test pilot. So, considering all this, I have absolutely no doubt that India's maiden human space flight should be operated by IAF. After all systems are validated, an Isro team can take over." Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly to space on April 12, 1961, was also an air force pilot.

The book, 'Indo-Soviet Joint Space Odyssey' , published by the space cell of Air Headquarters in New Delhi, echoes Sharma's sentiment. According to this book, an aviator is considered the most eminently suitable person for space experiments. "This is only natural since space is a projection of air and one starts flying in the air before graduating into space," the book says.

But Isro, with its huge string of achievements, does not readily buy this. The main thrust of its counter-argument is that its scientists and engineers will have no difficulty in learning to make the ambitious flight. A top space agency official, declining to be identified, pointed out that since the spacecraft carrying humans will be designed and made by Isro there is no reason why its own scientists and engineers cannot fly in it. "I am convinced that our team will have no difficulty in testing the spacecraft's systems in space. Why should it always be air force test pilots?" he said, citing Bhatt and Radhakrishnan as honourable examples . It's a different matter, though, that the mission had to be aborted in the wake of the 'Challenger' disaster on Janu ary 28, 1986, that killed all the seven crew members.

Interestingly, within Isro itself there are two schools of thought on who exactly should first fly into space from Sri harikota. And the person in favour of the IAF is, rather ironically, none other than Bhatt himself. "Since it will be the first manned mission of its kind taking off from India, it has to attain a level of perfection. Keeping this in view, cooperation with the IAF will be necessary," he said.

Bhatt, who is with Isro's Satellite Centre in Bangalore, said if more manned flights from India are scheduled they can be handled exclusively by Isro. "But, for the first flight, IAF certainly has to play an important role," he said. "I would be happy to go to space if I meet all the criteria.''

Sharing the opinion of Bhatt, his shuttle colleague Radhakrishnan said, "All initial space flights in the US, Russia and China were handled by air force test pilots. Remember the spacecraft has to be taken up and brought down, and this certainly calls for piloting skills. I do agree with Rakesh Sharma.''

Clearing the air, Radhakrishnan recalled that he was chosen for the space shuttle mission as a payload specialist something that does not require flying experience. "As of now, I do not think Isro has pilots and in the interest of safety a spacecraft cannot be flown by amateurs. When I say amateurs, I mean those who do not fly," he said.

Isro, meanwhile, is awaiting a formal nod for the mission from the Union cabinet. It has already been approved by the Planning Commission, which in February 2009 said a budget of Rs 5,000 crore would be required for the initial work. The Centre has also allocated a sum of Rs 50 crore for what Isro calls "pre-project initiatives'' for the year 2007-2008 . A report related to this programme has, in turn, been cleared by the space commission.

In anticipation of the Cabinet's green signal, Isro has begun preliminary design work for the three-tonne orbital vehicle that will carry a two-member crew into the low earth orbit for seven days at an altitude of 275 km. It will be carried by the three-stage Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

About 16 minutes after lift-off from Sriharikota, the GSLV will place the vehicle in orbit. Trials for the mission began with the 600-kg Space Capsule Recovery Experiment launched by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on January 10, 2007. The capsule re-entered and splashed into the Bay of Bengal on January 22, 2007.

India is expected to receive assistance in crew selection and training from Russia under an agreement signed between the two countries in March 2008. One option being considered is sending an Indian astronaut abroad a Soyuz capsule by 2012 in preparation for the indigenous experiment . There is a lot attached to India's manned flight to space as it is being seen as the precursor to a possible human mission to the moon around 2020.

But as a scientist said, "In the end, it is not who gets to fly to space, but how and when India does it that will matter most.'' The debate between pilots and scientists can rage on till then.


IAF is making an issue out of nothing. Space is certainly not the core domain for operation for the IAF. ISRO on th other hand is suupoed to deal with anything related to space technology. While ISRO is well worsed with space technology, IAF lacks the required capabilities. The new role of IAF in space will only dilute its focus from its prime job.

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