India is about to take one small step towards human space flight. Last week the country’s space agency unveiled a prototype of its first crew capsule, a 4-metre-high module designed to carry two people into low Earth orbit.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning a test flight for later this year – even though it still awaits government approval and funding for a human space-flight programme. The unpiloted capsule will fly on the maiden launch of a new type of rocket that would otherwise have carried a dummy payload.
“We thought it better to gain some confidence in the design of our crew module,” says Sundaram Ramakrishnan, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
Built by Hindustan Aeronautics in Bangalore, the prototype capsule cannot be hermetically sealed and so cannot take people into space. But if the rocket launch is a success, ISRO should be able to remotely test some in-flight controls and see how the module survives the stresses of re-entry and landing at sea.
The capsule will fly on a new variant of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, with its first test in a few months. When fully operational the rocket will loft satellites of about 4 tonnes to geosynchronous orbit, or place up to 9 tonnes into low Earth orbit. It could even be used to launch a future robotic moon mission.