Last month, China launched its Long March 5B heavy rocket into low Earth orbit, carrying the last module for the Tiangong space station. The significance of the completion of China’s space station was somewhat lost, however, as much of the attention was diverted by the uncontrolled reentry of the Long March 5B main body.
Although the International Space Station (ISS) continues to be the largest man-made structure in Earth orbit, it is the result of a collaboration between Canada, Japan, Europe, Russia and United States. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, cooperation between Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) and ISS partners seems increasingly difficult. Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov said Russia will end the ISS partnership by 2028. Other partner countries have also indicated that ISS operation will end by 2030.
The Chinese space station Tiangong (which means “heavenly palace” in Mandarin) consists of three modules and can accommodate a crew of six. Although much smaller in size than the ISS, it is the only independently operated space station in Earth orbit. China’s space station symbolizes advancements in the country’s human spaceflight program, and having an independent space station allows China to wield more meaningful influence in space.
India is on track to place its first astronauts in orbit by 2024. As India’s manned spaceflight program progresses, it is only natural that India would want its own space station. The question is, how should India go about it?
India State Human Flight Program
India’s manned spaceflight program officially kicked off in August 2018, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Gaganyaan program, which set the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as the goal of sending India’s first astronauts in space by 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed initial plans, pushing the first crewed flight to 2024.
Little is known about the future of India’s human spaceflight program after ISRO completed the first round of crewed missions. However, the bits of information that have come to light give us an idea of what the Modi government and ISRO have in mind. For example, in 2019 Dr. Kailasavadivoo Sivan, then ISRO President, said that after Gaganyaan, India would place a space station in orbit by 2030. The space station, Sivan said, would weigh between 15 and 20 tons and would support a small crew for 15 to 20 days in orbit. Sivan also noted that the space station would be entirely indigenous.
Building an all-indigenous space station has certain advantages, such as innovating long-term space habitation technologies and strengthening the domestic space industry. An indigenous space station will also give India the highest degree of autonomy in space.
But the option also has several disadvantages. First, India will need to acquire technological know-how in areas where other countries have already acquired expertise. That would make a native space station very expensive. And secondly, based on Sivan’s description, the Indian space station would be more like a space laboratory than a space station. A small station limits the activities that can be performed on board while limiting its diplomatic usefulness.
Therefore, the ideal option for India is to find suitable partners to build a space station.
A Quad Space Station?
Since 2018, the Quad, an informal partnership between Australia, Japan, India and the United States, has become a premier forum for the four countries to discuss and collaborate on strategic issues such as cybersecurity. , maritime safety and the development of advanced technologies. . Cooperation on space issues is not significant at present, but Quad countries have strong potential for future collaboration on large-scale space projects.
India’s bilateral cooperation with the United States, Japan and, more recently, Australia has increased sharply over the past decade. Notable projects include the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite, a $1.5 billion project slated for launch in 2023. India and Japan are currently collaborating on the polar exploration mission lunar, under which the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and ISRO will send a lunar rover no later than 2025. Space collaboration between India and Australia is minimal but will likely increase in the years to come.
The best possibility for India is to collaborate with Japan and Australia as space station partners. Japan currently operates the Gift module of the ISS, which gives it significant experience in the construction of space habitation infrastructures. India and Japan have similar space policy goals and share similar technological capabilities, allowing them to forge a symmetrical partnership. Since Australia lacks the technological capabilities of India and Japan, it will likely operate as a minor partner.
Direct cooperation with the United States is unlikely, as NASA’s space policy priorities are aimed at reaching the Moon and beyond. Instead, the US government awarded initial contracts to private companies to develop commercial space stations, which could one day replace the ISS.
Tough choices for manned spaceflight
Which path India takes to pursue its manned spaceflight program ultimately depends on how policymakers view India’s space program. Human spaceflight is politically popular but may not provide the economic or scientific benefits needed to recoup the investment costs. On the other hand, strategic considerations are also important when making decisions regarding the manned spaceflight program. While China can perform more than 40 space launches every year, India barely manages to perform 10 launches. Indian policymakers must ensure that the manned spaceflight program does not divert funds from strategic necessities.
India and its Quad partners must gradually increase the degree of cooperation before collaborating on a space station project. Indeed, some will say that it is too early to think of a space station program. The real danger, however, comes from entering a program without giving it much thought.
This article is based on a discussion paper written by the author.
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