India Joins League of Lunar Nations

G. Madhavan Nair, head of the indian space agency, talks about his country's first robotic lunar mission and plans for landing an Indian on the moon and mars

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

Last November, India reached the moon, the fifth country to do so after the United States, Russia, Japan, and China. Its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft went into a polar orbit 100 kilometers above the lunar surface early in the month; a week later it sent a probe to the surface, the probe snapping pictures and spectroscopically analyzing the superthin lunar atmosphere. It disintegrated on impact, but not before accomplishing its final task: depositing an Indian flag.

Incorporating scientific instruments from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the government of Bulgaria, the US $100 million Chandrayaan mission is helping scientists better understand the moon’s topography and the distribution of chemicals and minerals on its surface. The orbiter’s camera, which can resolve surface objects 5 meters across, has sent back thousands of stunning images. One of the mission’s chief goals is to search for water. Moon bases would need it to keep people alive and to manufacture propellant for missions to Mars and elsewhere.

No one relished the Indian triumph more than G. Madhavan Nair, the head of the country’s national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), based in Bangalore. Not only had the 66-year old electrical engineer chaperoned the mission, he had earlier led the effort to build the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a version of which propelled the Chandrayaan-1 on its voyage as the first Indian craft to escape Earth’s gravity. During his 42-year career at the ISRO he has tackled such diverse challenges as completing India’s liquid-hydrogen and -oxygen rocket engine and setting up rural offices that let farmers get up-to-date information from weather and Earth-sensing satellites.

With a workforce of 16 000, the ISRO is among a handful of space agencies in the world capable of designing, building, and launching its own satellites. Besides the PSLV, it also operates the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The ISRO’s 2008 budget of $1 billion was not quite one-seventeenth of NASA’s, yet the Indian agency operates the largest constellation of civilian remote-sensing satellites in the world, with eight orbiters, including a few capable of mapping to a resolution of less than 1 meter. In January 2007, the ISRO safely brought back an orbiting satellite as part of an effort to understand reentry technology—an essential step for undertaking human spaceflight.

Nair usually works 11 hours a day, seven days a week, but he found time on a recent balmy Saturday afternoon in Bangalore to sit down with technology and science journalist PALLAVA BAGLA. Nair described his dream of launching an Indian into orbit on an Indian rocket within the next six years, as well as his plans for missions to the moon and Mars.

Q: Chandrayaan-1 is now in orbit around the moon. Are you happy with the engineering part of the mission?

A: That we were able to place the Indian flag on the surface of the moon at the designated place with a timing accuracy of some 20 seconds—this is, I would say, one of the most precise orbits anybody would have got in the first mission. Every instrument is working very well, and the scientists have started looking at the data that has come out of it.

Q: Have you detected any water ice yet?

A: No, none at all. Chandrayaan¿Äë1 is a polar mission, and in its two¿Äëyear mission it will conduct the most intense search for water ice in the deep craters that pockmark the north and south poles of the moon.

Q: What are your plans for Chandrayaan-2?

A: Once we know the type of features, the type of mineral deposits, one would like to go to the surface. So what we are planning is a lander and a rover which will go around and pick up samples, analyze in situ, and send back the data. Chandrayaan-2 is slated for the 2012 to 2013 time frame. It would cost 4800 million or so rupees [US $96 million]. We will have cooperation from the Russian space agency because they have got lunar landing and rover technology.

Q: You seem to have a full plate.

A: Yeah, the moon, Mars, and beyond are all on ISRO’s horizon. Maybe, if everything goes all right, maybe we could establish a presence on the moon in 2020 and a manned mission to Mars between 2030 and 2040.

Q: ”In 2020” meaning an Indian on the moon?

A: I will not comment on that, but yes, we have such dreams.

Q: Before going to the moon, you would have to put Indians in orbit around Earth. Can you elaborate?

A: We have prepared a project report which envisages the development of a capsule which can carry two to three passengers on board the GSLV. We plan to be in space for about a week or so.

Q: Which Indian rocket could you use for a manned mission?

A: The GSLV Mark II and Mark III. Mark II can take just two passengers, but Mark III will be more comfortable when we want to carry three. By about 2015, we should have such a capability.

Q: So can you hope to put an Indian into space, using an Indian rocket launched from Indian soil, in 2015?

A: Yes. It will cost money, about 120 000 million rupees [$2.4 billion]. If we are able to spend that kind of money, yes, it is possible. This is nothing compared to the overall expenditure that we are making in the science and technology area, and it not only gives you that additional technology capability, but also it opens up a vast avenue of research related to the human body, human psychology. And the technology spin-offs could also be of tremendous value. So 120 000 million rupees over the next six years is peanuts.

Q: Are you planning to have any collaboration with the Americans?

A: NASA had suggested training astronauts in their facility. We asked specifically, could they take these trained Indian astronauts in their space shuttle? But unfortunately, there is no slot available in the space shuttle [which is being decommissioned in 2010]. So because of this we didn’t pursue the topic. But the first priority is to evolve a highly reliable launch system. We must develop access to space ourselves because rocket technologies are highly guarded. Beyond that, there can always be collaboration in space exploration like there is in Chandrayaan-1.

Q: You also have plans for reaching Mars.

A: Technically, we have the capability to go there. Our GSLV Mark II can carry a spacecraft similar to a Chandrayaan-1 to a Mars orbit. But we don’t want to do such a sophisticated mission just to repeat what others have done. If everything goes all right, by about 2013 to 2015 we should be able to attempt a Mars mission.

Q: how much would it cost to go to Mars?

A: It could be about 6000 million to 7000 million rupees [$120 million to $140 million] for an unmanned mission. But more than the money, what is important is getting the right kind of scientific groups [to work on Mars], of which there is a dearth [in India] today.

Q: Should humans go to Mars?

A: Well, if one wants to establish a colony, Mars could be more amenable than the moon. The NASA missions have spotted ice, and also there is an atmosphere, though it is a hostile atmosphere. Perhaps we can derive livable conditions from those components. A small portion of our budget is set aside for such advanced missions [Editor’s note: It is 16 percent]. In the long run I think if you want to maintain a leadership position in space, such sophisticated missions will become important.

Q: What new technologies will you need?

A: For interplanetary travel, nuclear propulsion may become essential. But there are a lot of hazards associated with handling nuclear fuel and technologies. Maybe the intermediate solution could be ion propulsion with solar energy.

Q: Do you think humans will be able to endure the flight to Mars?

A: New findings have always come because of an adventurous approach to facing such challenges. I think human beings are endowed with such a capability. The long duration of travel in space, that becomes really complex. First of all, without gravity the human body behaves in an entirely different manner, and so we must learn how to compensate for it and how to make sure that no disintegration or damage happens.

Q: Atrophy of the muscles…

A: All those muscles, bones, and even the blood flow, you know, all these things become question marks. Then comes the radiation, sustained radiation for long duration. A lot needs to be done. It won’t be an easy job.

For more articles, go to Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

About the Author

Pallava Bagla is the science editor of New Delhi Television and coauthor of Destination Moon: India’s Quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond (HarperCollins, 2008).