In Conversation Space Missions, Policy Reforms, and Books: Interview with the DoS Secretary, S. Somanath

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The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) emerged from peoples' aspirations, as a beacon of conviction that a space programme can provide solutions to problems unique to independent India. Since its inception in 1969, ISRO has developed technologies with applications in agriculture, forestry, communication, intelligence, remote sensing, and navigation, to name a few. “Technology creation is the prime mandate of ISRO and it will continue to be so to protect the national interest and steer the country's growth”, reaffirms Mr. S. Somanath, recently appointed Secretary, Department of Space (DoS), and Chairperson, ISRO.

ISRO has several ambitious interplanetary projects such as Chandrayaan-3, Gaganyaan (human space flight), Aditya L1 (solar mission), and Shukrayaan in its pipeline. These missions are not merely fanciful pursuits that utilise public money, but define our identity as a technology-creating nation striving to lead one of the most powerful and influential space programmes in the 21st-century world. Mr. Somanath adds, “These missions are opportunities to train a young scientific workforce that looks beyond routine tasks and drives fundamental knowledge creation. We aim to involve engineers, mathematicians, astronomists, astrophysicists, and entrepreneurs for building capacity for national missions and commercial economic ventures”.


On Missions

ISRO's workforce is diligently preparing for Chandrayaan's return to the moon, this time with a strong-featured ‘lander’ to ensure an error-free landing. Key changes in configuration, software, and sensors are introduced to predict, measure, and regulate the off-nominal conditions (uncertain events) that may occur in space. The lander is equipped with enhanced power-generation capacity and instruments to measure its precise position and velocity. Redundancy features to ensure that if one of the components malfunctions another one can take over are built in to safeguard against any glitches. Simulation landing tests and software simulation tests are being carried out at test facilities in Sriharikota, Bangalore, and at Trivandrum centres. “We hope to launch Chandrayaan-3 in 2022; hence, we need to carry out all the simulation tests successfully. We want to focus on success,” Mr. Somanath comments.

The human space flight (Gaganyaan) mission is stirring plenty of excitement and challenge for ISRO. The idea of parking a human in a rocket adds an unusual and risky dimension to the mission. This is why the government approved Gaganyaan only after reviewing the success of experiments demonstrating the capability to send the craft to lower earth orbit and bring it back. ISRO has developed the technology to deploy parachutes for a sea landing. The plan is to launch two ‘Failure simulation tests’ called ‘abort tests’ for Gaganyaan in August and December 2022. An abort test involves an intentional failure of the rocket to study different elements of safety and operation.


Read all about Gaganyaan


"The unmanned crew mission is to be conducted early next year," the Chairperson added. The uncrewed launch is conducted to confirm the proper functioning of the launch vehicle and to obtain measurements on the space environment and its dangers, such as radiation or excessive sun heating while the vehicle is in orbit. The launch further tests the efficiency of power generation units to ensure communication through various ground stations across the globe. It involves a demonstration of bringing the launch vehicle back to earth and landing in the sea.

“The last leg of Gaganyaan will carry four test pilots from the Indian Air Force who have already received their training in Russia. Currently, the crew is undergoing classroom training in India to understand the rockets involved and the operation of the whole mission. Simulator training to work inside the space vehicle and handle contingencies is planned for the crew,” says Mr. Somanath. He hopes to bring in civilians, students, professionals, and scientists in the future on the Indian human spaceflight programme. “This will be India’s effort towards making a future with human presence in space”, he remarks.

After the successful launch of PSLV-C52, ISRO is gearing up to launch three PSLV missions in 2022 —PSLV-C53, with a satellite for ocean observation; a satellite for New Space India Limited (NSIL), funded by commercial entities; and another for the Aditya L1 Mission. The maiden launch of a small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) is also expected this year.


On space policy reforms

The DoS resolves to implement the recently introduced space policy reforms to increase private participation and enable India to leapfrog into a new-world space economy. “The space sector has great expectations from startups and industries to invest in space. This will help create a backend strength in launch vehicles and satellites”, says Mr. Somanath.

The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) and NSIL were created to enable entrepreneurs to obtain technologies made by ISRO, make use of facilities in ISRO, and foster collaborations to develop new applications. IN-SPACe will promote technology transfer from abroad, provided it creates jobs and economic activity in India. The NSIL is tasked with handling business operations.


Read all about IN-SPACe


In addition, the ‘New Space Policy’ is ready for vetting by the space commission. The policy draft provides the blueprint for regulations and guidelines for private players. For example, the space transportation policy provides the scope and permission for private industries to build rockets in India, an activity that is currently not allowed. Similarly, guidelines on technology transfers from ISRO to private entities and foreign direct investments (FDIs) are included.

The DoS is also working on a Space Law/Act to be passed by the parliament soon. Per this act, IN-SPACe will perform regulatory functions. “Without a national law in place, nobody can manufacture or launch a satellite or a rocket owing to safety issues and the risks associated,” says Mr. Somanath.


On the people behind all of it

“We know very little of the people who have worked for the organization and the efforts they’ve put in over these years. Reading about these people and their work might make it a little easier to believe in the possibility of what we intend to achieve for India,” Mr. Somanath says.

When asked about his pick of books on the space sector and its people, the Chairperson said that besides the more widely read works about Sarabhai, Dhawan, and Kalam, one could read U.R. Rao’s Inside the ISRO: Narrating the Indian Space Odyssey, Kasturirangan’s account of his life in ISRO and the Planning Commission, G. Madhavan Nair’s autobiography, Agnipareekshakal, R. Aravumudan, and Geeta Aravamudan’s ISRO: A Personal History, K. Radhakrishnan’s My Odyssey: Memoirs of the Man Behind the Mangalyaan Mission, and books by bureaucrats like S. K. Das, Former Member (Finance), DoS (Touching Lives: The Little Known Triumphs of the Indian Space Programme). All these books are enriched with personal anecdotes, bringing out different perspectives on the organization. “One gets to know more about the culture of the Department of Space and ISRO than about technologies developed here,” Mr. Somanath adds.


On ISRO’s strengths and his vision as the new Secretary

“Developing applications for end users is ISRO’s core strength and the primary goal—to serve the administration, the government, and the people. With the new space reforms, DoS aspires to increase the number of people participating in space activities from a few thousand (the current figure) to a few lakhs. There are immense opportunities for youngsters to work in space as we have at least fifty start-ups in the Indian space sector now. The youth can join a space company in India which will build rockets and launch satellites. I would like to see such a model coming out. I nurture this vision as Secretary, DoS.


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