India is spending $1.4 billion on a space trip and there are bigger plans involved


  • Prime Minister Modi announced during his Independence Day address this year that India would send its first manned mission to space by 2022.
  • The overall cost of the mission, which will involve a crew of three astronauts orbiting Earth for seven days, was pegged at $1.4 billion on 28 August.
  • The goal of the mission is to cement India’s status as a space power.
During his Independence Day address earlier this month, PM Narendra Modi earmarked a deadline for the country’s first manned space mission. He announced that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would be sending an astronaut around Earth by 2022.

On 28 August, the overall cost of the mission was pegged at $1.4 billion, significantly less than what space stalwarts like the United States and Russia spend on their expeditions. The mission, which will comprise of a three-person crew, is slated to take between five to seven days and will see the spacecraft staying within a 300 to 400 km orbit from the Earth.

ISRO is well known for its low-cost space programmes and the organisation surged to global prominence in 2014 after its Mangalyaan mission, wherein a satellite was sent to Mars for a cost that was 10 times less than what NASA had spent on a similar project. The Mangalyaan satellite completed 1000 days in Mars's orbit last June.

While all that is well, India, right now, has far more pressing obligations to take care of - like infrastructure for its cities and healthcare and education for its citizens. Why spend $1.4 billion on a space mission?

The answer is simple. Bragging rights.

To be a space power will not only be a source of national pride but an indication of of India’s increasingly prominent role on the global stage.

And this isn’t the country’s first mission to space either. In addition to the Mars launch, it sent the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to explore the Moon’s surface. However, the successful completion of manned space missions is a rare feat only achieved by three countries until now - the US, Russia and China. Interestingly, Denmark also has a manned space mission slated for 2022.

Fuel from the moon

However, there’s also another, arguably more important, reason that India is interested in sending humans to space. It wants to mine fuel from the Moon someday. And this is where its space and energy ambitions converge.

The Indian government wants to assess the feasibility of harnessing a waste-free nuclear fuel from the south side of the Moon. As a part of its Chandrayaan-2 programme, the ISRO is set to send a rover to the Moon in early 2019 to analyse samples of the lunar surface for helium-3 concentration, a potentially trillion-dollar isotope that is believed to be abundant on the Moon because of solar winds.

First discovered as a result of NASA’s Apollo missions, the non-radioactive isotope does not produce waste when fused in a nuclear reaction and if harnessed adequately, could provide an important source of energy to power Earth. In December 2018, China plans to send its own rover to the moon to scout for helium-3 samples, among other things, illustrating the urgency of India’s task.

The Chandrayaan-2 rover will spend two weeks covering a 400-metre radius on the moon. Following the landing of the rover, the ISRO also plans to launch a space station into orbit. A manned mission to the Moon will be a culmination of this programme.
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