India's first human space flight, 'Gaganyaan' scheduled for 2024

The project has been delayed by two years due to the pandemic.
Ameya Paleja
India's LVM3 M2 rocket
India's LVM3 M2 rocket

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India's Minister for Science and Technology told the Parliament last week that India's first human space flight mission has been scheduled for the last quarter of 2024. Dubbed Gaganyaan, the project aims to demonstrate human spaceflight capacity by launching a three-member crew to an orbit of nearly 250 miles (400 km) for three days, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) says on its webpage.

India's space program is still in its early stages but has been making global headlines in recent years after ISRO's launch vehicle launched a record-breaking 104 satellites in one go a few years ago. More recently, a private space tech company test-fired the world's first 3D-printed rocket engine, which has a turnaround of just four days.

The next phase of the country's space story includes human space flight, which was announced in 2018 and expected to be launched this year, coinciding with the 75th year of Indian independence. However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works delaying the project by two years.

How will human spaceflight be achieved?

According to ISRO's webpage, the human spaceflight dubbed the 'H1 mission' will be powered by the LVM3 rocket, one of the space agency's most reliable and well-proven launchers. The rocket has been reconfigured to meet human rating requirements and is now known as Human Rated LVM3 (HLVM3).

The reconfigured rocket consists of a crew escape system (CES) which is powered by quick-acting high-burn rate solid motors to enable the crew to be taken to a safe distance in case of an emergency during launch or ascent.

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The Orbital Module consists of a crew module (CM) and a service module (SM) much like the Orion Space Capsule that recently returned to Earth after a mission around the Moon.

The CM module is the habitable space consisting of a pressurized metallic Inner Structure and an unpressured external structure with a thermal protection system (TPS) for the safe re-entry of the crew. The CM will also house necessary life support systems, avionics, and deceleration systems, while SM will provide support through propulsion and power systems, avionics, and deployment mechanisms.

Progress so far

The static fire test of the solid booster of the HLVM3 has been completed, while the liquid and cryo stages have completed their engine qualification tests. The static fire test of the CES has also been completed, while the propulsion characterization tests of the CM and SM have also been completed.

In November this year, ISRO conducted the Integrated Main Parachute Airdrop Test (IMAT) of the crew module deceleration system with a five-ton dummy mass dropped from an altitude of over 8,000 feet (2.5 km), a national media outlet said in its report. The test simulated a unique situation where one of the parachutes failed to open.

In a written reply to the Lower House of the Parliament, the Minister for Science and Technology said, "In view of the paramount importance of crew safety, two test vehicle missions are planned before the ‘H1’ mission to demonstrate the performance of crew escape system and parachute-based deceleration system for different flight conditions."

Uncrewed missions G1 and G2 are scheduled to be conducted in Q4 2023 and Q2 2024, with the H1 mission slated for Q4 2024. The three-member crew has been selected from the Indian Air Force and is currently undergoing mission-specific training in the Indian city of Bengaluru, another leading daily reported.