Articles and Commentaries |
January 4, 2024


Written By: Ravi Sharma


Major events that started the Space Race was the launch of Sputnik 1 – the first artificial earth satellite in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. Subsequently, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot and astronaut, aboard Vostok 1, completed one orbit of earth on 12 April 1961. This was the first successful crewed spaceflight in the world. In response, US President John F Kennedy gave his vision to put man on the Moon by end of the 1960s and get him safely back to earth.

Tagore wrote on freedom of mind Mana mere megher shangeet, udi jaye dig digantar pani, nisshim shunye, Shravan varshan shangeete.(My mind is like the music made by clouds in rainy season, it flies high with freedom). Similar reference is found in Syen Chiti and Dwa Suparna of RigVed. In his book ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, Richard Bach writes about a seagull who is trying to learn about flying, personal reflection, freedom, and self-realisation. This spirit of freedom lived in most of the 140,000 people team, including most Americans but several percent new-world citizens like me for coming together to make the Apollo 11 programme a success, which led to the first crewed mission to the moon on 20 July 1969. 

In the Indian context, PM Modi factors in creating spark in the eyes of youth of 2023 India. The late President Kalam was focussed on igniting the young minds around New Millennium 2000, and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai gave forth his vision (he inspired me, Prof. UR Rao, and Dr. Vasant Gowarikar, among others, to return to India and contribute).

A wonderful result in a fearful world polarised by superpowers but with decisive victory of sustained democracy and freedom of mind, with political stability, made the decade 1962-1972 a great history of human space exploration. In sum, 12 men set foot on the Moon, 12 additional men orbited the Moon without landing, and resulted in smaller space programs later. Our team of a dozen NASA HQ scientists and engineers (myself included) trained them and provided oversight for all experiments that astronauts performed on the Moon and in cislunar space. Our Apollo Motto was Fail-Fail-Failsafe! This related to primary, secondary, and tertiary backup systems. We had no loss of human life in space, only one mission could not land on moon, and we routinely provided 60 observatories to optically track all Apollo missions. When such mottos are ignored or alerts compromised by authority over freedom, mishaps happen such as Shuttles Discovery, Columbia and initially INSAT satellites in India.

Almost 55 years later, still waiting for two more years before seeing other humans land on the Moon, the world realises the risks and costs but there is upsurge in seeing the benefits in future to make investments and costs (ROI and TCO) worthwhile today, with a mix of robotic and live human mix in the overall space race—the second wave after Apollo. Imagine the accomplishments that the US would have had if there were no gaps in human space programs! These gaps were due to shortsighted vision of those funding the space program, namely the US Congress and the Executive, with 4-year term vision, while such programs require wisdom with longer time horizons.

In human space program accomplishments, many firsts were from former Soviet Union with Mir, Soyuz, duration in space, women in space etc.. Today, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Space Shuttle, International Space Station are excellent international cooperation examples, which raise hopes of future successful programs between democratic free world and the countries with dictatorships. After the signing of Artemis Accord, India has realigned itself with the freedom block where it can unleash pent-up energy of young minds, hopefully catching up and maybe someday soon, exceeding China’s already excellent accomplishments. It is not out of place to mention that in the former Soviet Union, now Russia as also in China, after the supreme authority, the next level of autonomy has often been in the hands of technology and science leaders, such as academicians in the former USSR.

Top level Human Space Flight Enablers include proven capabilities e.g., launch vehicles (LV), life support systems, rendezvous, docking, ingress, reentry, and landing. Other infrastructure needed is communications, power, food and supplies, systems for experiments, laboratories, software, backup, etc. Critical for the US was development of Saturn V (stages I, II and IVB) and now three US large LVs—SpaceX Falcon 9, Starship (including Falcon Super Heavy) and United Launch Alliance SLS used for Artemis. Next decade’s human space missions will use these three LVs.

After Apollo 3-Man Command and Service Module, (CSM), an advanced Orion CSM has been built, supporting crew of up to 6 astronauts for Moon and beyond, with Command Module being reusable. Other important elements are Gateway as a lunar orbiting station for transfer of humans to lunar surface using Starship-Orion combination, other options for cargo and astronaut lunar habitat buildup, and return to Earth. Mars human mission capability will perhaps be Artemis combination of Starship and Orion and multiple countries modules.

China has plans for sending humans to Moon while it has nearly a decade’s human space stations experience and very safe program. India has only one flight experience; that of astronaut Rakesh Sharma with 1984 Soyuz mission. Gaganyaan is India’s current program where astronauts and related systems are based on Russian help and training. It is an independent LEO program signed up before Artemis Accord. Now, there are at least two paths available to India, one as country program and other leveraging Artemis Accord. It is important to note that I wrote a 25-page report in 1975 (still in ISRO HQ library), that proposed India’s participation in the NASA Space Shuttle program. If that had been accepted, we would have raised the number of Indian astronauts to a dozen or more today as ISS had opened more opportunities beyond the space shuttle. But it takes courage like Sarabhai’s and real leadership at the apex level like Modi’s—and both were not available for 50 years—to leverage such opportunities.

Historic ISS and Shuttle missions have gained lot of human spaceflight results including life and health data and genomics data over last 20-30 years of LEO missions. I proposed two experiments for ISS prior to 2000, one on particle movements in microgravity which was not approved; the other was bioinformatics based, for detecting genes suitable for microgravity survival and for exploring mutations triggered by microgravity, by keeping track of natural and space based successive generations of rodents on ISS. This was accepted in principle for 100 generations (10 years), but funding was not available. Subsequently, one-year human genomic map, including changes, for astronauts during their stay on ISS and comparative data on flight of identical twins (Kelly) are available to NASA.

Similarly, not only for Earth use, microgravity manufactured drugs have been tested to treat ailments of long duration spaceflights for future astronauts. We can guess alternative medical and health paths for spaceflight in future decades related to controlled hibernation (like yogis) and for social and mental wellbeing (Yajurved: Tan me Manah Shiva sankalpamastu) to enable action using noble thoughts.

History is witness to the fact that human energy can be harnessed to wonderful capabilities when given an atmosphere of freedom. Dr. Werner Von Braun (my mentor and guide along with Chuck Mathews for my participation in Apollo, Skylab, Shuttle and Space Station) is the hero who made Saturn V possible. His counterpart in the German team also made Soviet rockets possible after Hitler’s defeat, as this team was under pressure, producing V2 rockets. These two teams were heading US and USSR programs. Future generations will recognise similar leadership and vision of Elon Musk. Starship, with double the capabilities to deliver payloads as compared to SLS and with reusability, is likely to become the LV of choice for lunar and other human and robotic missions.

China’s LV program owes its existence to Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-Shen) a prominent Chinese aerodynamicist and cyberneticist who contributed to rocket science and established engineering cybernetics (He had Caltech and MIT background). I had participated in a contract at Hughes at Maryland facility in 1998 to train a dozen Chinese space engineers in building remote sensing satellites, payloads and software-based multiplexers for efficient data processing. They have grown a strong Earth observation satellite program. Subsequently, such facilities for China were denied by US Congress in early 2010.

In Indian context, as Scientific Secretary ISRO HQ, I was having technical oversight of all major ISRO programs; the solid rocket fuel development indigenously was by Dr. Vasant Gowarikar’s team and integration of first solid fuelled LV for non-human payloads was by APJ Abdul Kalam who later became President of India. There were many others who were first in building satellites such as Prof UR Rao. In remote sensing programs, I was able to conceptualise and produce Bhaskara satellites, and also in establishing an agency now called National Remote Sensing Center, ISRO. Later, after I left ISRO, under Dr. Kasturirangan’s and Dr. George Joseph’s leadership, IRS program thrived while INSAT program went through a decade of mission failures due to faulty design, estimated too risky by me and was the primary reason for my leaving ISRO 5-6 years before the satellites were launched.

Subsequently with technology developments and design changes, satellite programs have advanced, including Communication, Earth Observation and Navigation. Only now have scientific satellites been emphasised including 3 Chandrayaan missions, one Mars mission and Aditya L1 solar observatory. An Xray astronomy satellite has also recently been announced. Prof. S. Chandrasekhar (Nobel Laureate) has been honoured by NASA by having the Chandra Observatory named after him.

Today, we need to ponder over the fact that we have polluted Earth and overpopulated it beyond its capacity to maintain the recycling processes to keep its beauty serene. While how much is its capacity is debatable and how much 1.5 deg K increase in average temperature would shut us down, progressively disabling breathing and availability of clean water among other resources, this certainly will go down in history as the folly of humankind. Commitments to restore the Earth and environment are hence of paramount importance. This does not preclude nuclear and other types of calamities due to virus, pandemics, and terrorism as also due to natural calamities due to interplanetary space objects disturbing the Earth. Hope the readers of this article will appreciate the wisdom of Space Launch Vehicle Expert, Dr Ajay Kothari. He is recognised by NASA and US Defense and is my colleague on Board of American Society of Engineers of India origin. His article has been published in this journal along with my article, which provides another excellent perspective, which I will not repeat here. Sufficient to say that serene peace in nature and ethics agreements are at least one way to make Earth pleasant and last a bit longer. This is a challenge, and every challenge is an opportunity for all entrepreneurs including budding enterprises from India.

Environment monitoring – author started contributing from 1972 onwards by doing band selection on ERTS 1 and 2 re-designated Landsat, and by participation in Terra, Aqua and Aura and Poes satellites, and for contributing to NASA EOSDIS Active Archives enabling anyone to access and assess Earth’s health changes over past 5-6 decades. Continuity of such programs is a global responsibility and if the US, ESA, and other participants slow down funding, emerging space countries have to at least fill the slack.

Two excellent examples, although not perfect, are LHC at CERN and ITER at France, more mature models of international funding must evolve for sustenance and meaningful earth goals, not micky-mouse egoism that is plaguing international politics today. Apollo like commitments in fusion research would have reduced thermal fossil fuel damage to environment as would have the hydrogen or early adoption of green electric vehicles.

The biggest challenge to stability is authoritative regimes and terrorism, and without population control and agreement on ethical civil societies, progress can be wiped out due to unpredictable events and risks. It is true that true justice for all is an utopian concept in reality, and it is amazing that despite such disturbances through history, humankind is making progress even though not very proudly.

India’s overpopulation is a threat and China’s is better controlled now but still next largest; also the rate of population growth in economically challenged countries is unsustainable. The feedback loop mechanism automatically reduces population as prosperity rises and affordability of offsprings quality of life enters the consideration. As we have made Earth almost unenjoyable through pollution and overcrowding, we have been doing the same already in LEO with 6k or more inactive debris (satellites and other parts, cascades of fragmentation) with no easy way to clean due to lack of regulation. Who will curb this bad Earth type culture? The UN seems to have taken a back seat, and when I represented India as alternate delegate in 1974 and 1977, the Outer Space Committee had more control than it has now as both superpowers and non-block consortium had more decision-making ability, despite slow progress. The fear is hence of similar chaos in new Space Race era while we explore Moon, asteroids and beyond for economic, knowledge and security reasons.

The Future

Where is near future taking us in these established areas in the next 10-20-50 year scenario! We can expect the following: 

Communications : Wide-spectrum electromagnetic to laser optical and then quantum computing entangled states.

Planetary and natural satellites (moons): Remote sensing with hyperspectral imaging, and using other properties such as BRDF, polarisation, goniometry and AI  enabled robotic missions as precursors of intelligent robots and human missions.

Energy: Solar is a big limitation impacting all outer planetary and interstellar robotic and remote observatories outreach. RTGs proven from 60 year old vintage are being used by other nations but for some reason not by India despite my recommendations in 2020 – article analyzing Chandrayaan-2 and suggestions for future ISRO missions. But for higher power requirements, active nuclear fission (preferably thorium) and fusion reactors will be required.

Reconnaissance and remote sensing: Situational Awareness, quantum computing, AI, Information curation, etc.

Exploration: Combination of above applications and infrastructure, as well as robotic and intelligent robotic missions. Present orbiters, landers, rovers, and helicopters on Mars for example have some of this especially with Systems Software upgrades from earth stations to on board systems. Sample returns from moon, planets and asteroids are going to be prevalent over next few decades at least.

Materials in and from Space: For long term survival (human habitat) and easy harvesting rare minerals for earth use, the renewed interest on lunar and asteroid material is increasing. China has brought automated Samples from Moon, US, EU and Japan from asteroids and Mars samples are encapsulated for return in future. This includes potential use of helium from Moon. India has begun planning lunar sample returns for Chandrayaan-4.

Manufacturing: Space based manufacturing in microgravity of crystals, pharma and other products for Earth use has been accomplished in Shuttle Spacelab and ISS. Automating and returning this on robotic missions is yet to happen for economy oof scale. But lunar material processing and building habitat under regolith for radiation protection is on design boards and will be part of Artemis program.

Robots and humans: Robots first for reconnaissance, establishment of infrastructure capabilities and thereafter rarely humans for their expertise and analytical abilities.

V2-Saturn-Starship and then where are we going? Candidates after achieving LEO payloads beyond chemicals are driven by success in developing fusion, nuclear fission, low deltaV ion propulsion, and other propulsion systems. Very long space robotic missions will likely use from these as they mature.

NASA Solar Studies next 2 Decades: Parker Solar Probe. Beside Parker, other active solar missions include Solar Orbiter, SOHO, ACE, IRIS, WIND, Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and STEREO. Other International Probes include India’s first serious attempt Aditya L1. The coronal and cosmic solar emissions affect not only Van Allen belts and NEO/GEO space assets but also affect Earth Grids and other space weather phenomena. The studies concentrate in tracing the CMEs and particles from a few solar radii, Alfven region, and all the interplanetary space but most important is its effect on satellite services and earth. A breakthrough project is taking shape to combine solar studies, quantum annealing and information use with very high success rates promised. 

Next 50 (~100) years are Solar Interplanetary Exploration Era:  With inclusion of Kuiper belts, Oort cloud objects, asteroids, comets, and interstellar intrusions not limited by solar power and ensuring nearly 100+ year life of outer orbits missions, transforming Pioneer like probes with higher information links to Earth.

Search for intelligence: Environmentally conducive exoplanets and satellites (moons) for having life (even cellular) and success of efforts such as SETI.

Fallouts: Like those from space program in new unforeseen and planned use of space suitable technologies and for repurposing them.

Quantum computing: If the current efforts at quantum computing mature to a few thousand or beyond Qubits and entanglement is beneficially used, one may see huge space communications as well as deep space probes results capabilities and beyond such as higher success rates identifying exoplanets and eventual communications with other intelligence in space albeit with associated risks warned by Hawking among others.   

Decadal and beyond Pathway for India 

Cognisant of past reasons for break in tempo, India is poised to strengthen recently opened entrepreneurship pathways free from bureaucratic interference, ensuring continuity of policies for freedom of doing global business relating to space and related infrastructure, subsystems, components, services and consulting globally for other space entities. Ability to scale is the key parameter.

Leverage current and projected 15-20 years growth of India assuming even adverse situations such as border and economic challenges and local conflicts.

Make alliances that are more stable like Artemis that align open democratic accords likely to have pool fundings and shared costs. Contribute and use shared facilities to establish reliable partnerships sincerely as shown in past for military and space cooperation with Russia.

Use commercial opportunities with better focus, by increasing LV production, safety and reliability of contracted launches. Fabrication of satellites, components and launch, software and control, communications, and services globally, increasing the historic Antrix Corporation share enhanced by IN-SPACe and other space industries including new small and large ones for export enhancements.

Create strategic pricing and reliability to offer to NASA and SpaceX, ULA and others, use Artemis Accord to offer services, partnerships and joint / collaborative missions and services to make space more affordable and increase revenue share of India on agreed terms. Also include ESA and international customers.

Increasing presence of space assets in NEO and GEO has been a force multiplier for economic benefits, security enhancements and expansion of use of space-based systems and services for many aspects. Situational Awareness and use of AI play crucial part in operational and science objectives of space utilisation. Space Governance is at best in nascent stage and appears mostly chaotic, and India’s leadership has to be established in UN Outer Space Policies.

Today there are more than 8 to 12 K satellites and related objects orbiting the earth and beyond. SpaceX alone has put more than 5k satellites in orbit, has permission to launch up to total 12k satellites today and has asked for permission to launch 30K more satellites.

How does India increase its meagre share of global satellite launch market? To date, only 400-500 international satellites have been launched from, and by India and only 150 of its own in the last 50+ years of its space program! Indian entrepreneurs and student satellites helped by IN-SPACe cannot bring India to a global player status with this low progress strategy.

Combination of SpaceX type strategy would help because every launch was quick, satellites were part of LV strategy, applications emerged and revenues increased, success was faster than fat corporations’ such as LM, Boeing, etc., with their delays, cost overruns, low numbers did not prove reliability. Concatenating one-with-other sequence or in parallel such as reusability, and repeatability of mass production of satellites and LVs gave SpaceX the financial success and orders started flowing from NASA. SpaceX saved NASA image by being the only backup after Space Shuttle and Russian dependence was eliminated, but Russian collaboration saved the ISS. Similar synergy is emerging from Starship, and it will become a workhorse like Falcon with eventual high reliability.

From experience of growth of China and SpaceX, the strategies of Indian space program’s new spirit can be strategised so as to capture global share by offering competitive costs, services, and operations as preferred vendor, partner and collaborator. 

Envision clusters of synergy such as Silicon Valley, not traditional incubation models that are not scaling. IN-SPACe is a good attempt, but MOUs and assistance are only promoters; we need collaborations and international team-building. India needs to break free. While this is happening, India must merge its goals of space capability with leveraging the internal strengths for globally mutual benefits.

Repeating again, select a strategy that gives India the edge in services, producing products, dependability with low risks, with upgrades and new technologies. Simulations, AI, VR tools can prequalify, smart materials and self-healing systems can make success robust. Build up on cross domain fusion of technologies. Smart defect free production, especially partnering in weak performance areas such as VLSI and Quantum computing.

Jumpstart with events such as Chandrayaan-3. Find innovative ways to utilise fantastic youth energy gainfully and peacefully with space interests. Continue smart use of limitations such as unique orbits for Chandrayaan and Aditya L1 and smaller LV but smart results as was the use of propulsion module for earth orbit return. One glaring gap has been science and interest in science needing government support and boost not just in more universities and IITs but in terms of India originated journal articles and publications (see those originating from EU and China). Quality and numbers to become significant, even though enhanced by Indians scientists abroad or visiting in global institutions. It is fair to say that occasionally small unknown institutions produce good papers but knowledge discovery leadership for the country is not yet globally established in new papers from India’s geography root. Science policy must allow rise to Nobel and other equivalent recognitions beyond Padma Awards which are often self-praise and by clans. Ask the Question! Would Sarabhai or Bhabha have liked this snail pace? Yet the last decade of progress is made in spite of past 50 years of cocoons of closed leaderships, like family or regional clans. There is difference between community excellence skills and nepotism, yet societies succeed! Hopefully current leadership will break wrong trends.

Compare with China quantum jump in 20 years on multiple fronts even though it is said that Huns clan rules mostly!

Lunar and Solar Aditya experiments have proven that India can build reliable science experiments and instruments. Use cultural and historic learning traditions and fusion into modern science. Leverage these for commerce and export.

Reduce dependency on earth for expensive chemical launches but promote SpaceX like reusability, not 20-50 years after it is proven elsewhere, but keep teams engaged to risk evaluation based early adaptation of innovation or better yet, become the leaders of innovation!

Biggest gain can be achieved by encouraging and nurturing the young minds excited by successes such as Chandrayaan-3 and hopefully Aditya L1, to open awareness of space benefits to India and globe and how this large potential of human power can transform global space scenario by becoming leaders and entrepreneurs with a global share of making the change possible, for example in satellites recovery after end of life, debris removal, launching others payload, etc. This will gainfully employ promising youth.

A lot is happening, but vision to achieve global participating leadership is to execute future robotic manufacture, return from space manufacture, establish space observatories, and space hardware, subsystems excellence, and more! Market, if free, will determine the selection of those who meet the demand fairly. Success will also be measured by happy science, engineering and industry entrepreneurs, satisfaction of course is taught and rooted in Indian culture.

Shivaste Santu Panthanah, Safalaste Santu Manorathah – for Indian Space Leaders of future, may your paths be noble and may you achieve your dreams!

Author Brief Bio: Dr. Ravi Sharma, Ph.D. USA, is a Former Scientific Secretary iSRO HQ, NASA Apollo Achievement Awardee, Ontolog Board of Trustees, Particle and Space Physics, Senior Enterprise Architect and SAE Fuel Cell Standards Member.



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