Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dr Radhakrishnan are you listening--ISS?

       On September 27 2010 at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague, chairman of Isro, K.Radhakrishnan, said ``as of now there is no programme to get into the ISS (International Space Station).'' What he meant was that India has no immediate plans of partnering with the 17-member space station.

       But what happened 45-days later? The joint statement issued by PM Manmohan Singh and President Obama on Monday declared that India and the US will ``seek ways to colloborate in future lunar missions, international space station and human space flight...''

       While the Isro chief said that India has no immediate plans to join the ISS, Singh and Barack Obama are saying just the opposite, suggesting that perhaps there could be a communication gap between Isro and other bureacrats who have played a role in drafting the joint statement. This has raised an important question. Was the Isro chairman or any of the top space agency officials kept in the loop while the statement was being prepared?

       Pradeep Mohandas, secy of India chapter of the Moon Society, recalls that even in the case of the lunar rover which will fly on the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon in 2013 a similar thing happened. Isro was planning to send its own rover to the moon. But during a visit of Singh to Moscow in November 2007 it was decided that there will instead be a Russian rover and lander. The decision to have a Russian rover disappointed many Isro scientists It was subsequently decided to have small Indian rover too along with the Indian rover. But, in May 2010, Russia decided to withdraw from the rover deal because of what it calls ``tight schedule,'' and as things stand only an Indian rover will fly to the moon on a Russian lander.

       The joint Indo-Us statement which refers to ISS needs to be viewed in the context of foreign space agencies like for example the European Space Agency saying that India and China should partner with the ISS because of their status as major space powers. This view was shared more recently by space attache at the French embassy in Washington Emmanuel de Lipkowski.

       There are of course two views about India being a part of the ISS. Those in favour point out that by teaming up with the ISS India will have a manned presence in space along with nations like the US, Russia and Japan. They say that apart from providing a boost to India's space programme, the colloboration will have geo political significance too, Also, if India is exploring the possibility of a future manned mission to the moon or Mars, the space station will be an excellent training ground. India has not had a manned presence in space since Rakesh Sharma flew to the Russian-built Salyut-7 space station in April 1984.

       Space expert Taylor Dinerman writing in the ``The Space Review'' on November 17, 2008, says: ``India has not only proved itself with Chandrayaan-1, it has also made a critically important step towards a truly civil space programme by setting up a military space command. This separation puts India well within international norms and indicates that the government in New Delhi wants to make it fairly easy for Isro to join international space projects such as the ISS.''

       ``One obstacle to India joining the ISS is lack of money.This is what killed Brazil's membership and preliminary talks with India should be careful to insure that Isro's commitment are compatible with India's overall budgetary policy. India has the right to be considered a full fledged space faring nation,'' he said.

       But, the other side of the argument is that it is unclear that over the years what have been the actual scientific gains of the ISS. So by sending Indian vyomanauts, how will India really benefit?  Some years ago when there were indications that India was exploring the possibility of joining the ISS, Isro informally said that scientists were asked to think about experiments. But for various reasons the project fizzled out.

       ``Beyond Moon and Mars,'' learnt on Tuesday that a senior Isro official while interacting with school kids in Bangalore 10 days ago, he said that India has been invited to partner with the ISS. Is it an informal or a formal invitation. Or he just referring to the statements made by space agency chiefs at the International Astronautical Congress who said India must become a part of the space station.

       Another thing--since India's possible partnership with the ISS has been mentioned in the joint Indo-US statement, India by no means should come under American control if it finally agrees to colloborate with the space station. It should not happen that eventually India has joined the ISS for the benefit of the US, as it has happened in the nuclear sector. India's space sector should maintain its independance.

      The days ahead are interesting and Dr Radhakrishnan should atleast now come out in the open as to where India really stands atleast with regards to the ISS.

      The statement also talks about Indo-US partnership in future lunar missions and human space flight programmes. Isro officials were in the dark about future lunar missions since Chandrayaan-3 does not exist, atleast for the moment. Also as things stand they have ruled out any possibility of Nasa payloads flying on Chandrayaan-2. It is possible that there could be an Indian payload on one of the future unmanned Nasa missions to the moon. This of course is just a guess.

       Again with regards to the human space flight programme, Isro officials wonder what this colloboration with the US could be since India's programme has yet to receive the official `go' from the government. Again in the US, with just three space shuttle flights left--Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis---it is unlikely that any of them will accommodate an Indian at the last moment--what with all the training which is needed.

      Some years ago there was talk of the US taking an Indian vyomanaut on one of the space shuttle missions. But, former Nasa adminstrator, Michael Griffin, told the media in Bangalore when he came to sign an agreement relating to Chandrayaan-1 that the plan cannot be adhered to since there was no room available on the space shuttles. This was a reply to a question asked by BMM.

      So what is this agreement?  Will it go beyond the paper? That is the question.



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