Giant leap

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day announcement that India will develop a programme to put an Indian into space sets new targets for the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) and the Indian aerospace community. Unlike the Russian space programme and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or Nasa) in the US, Indian space research has always focused completely on unmanned missions. Moving to a manned programme will involve research and development of a whole new range of technologies. Apart from the unquantifiable benefit of inspiring young scientists with a new set of goals and boosting national pride, there are concrete benefits to putting human beings in space.

That’s because space stations and habitats are tightly contained ecospheres, presenting conditions that cannot be simulated anywhere on Earth. These are low-gravity, or microgravity environments, conducive to all sorts of research that cannot be performed within a gravity well. Space ecospheres are surrounded by conditions extremely hostile to life. Space may be very cold (a few degrees above absolute zero) or very hot (above 300 degree Celsius). A manned spacecraft must be adequately shielded against radiation and deal with both heat and cold, often at the same time. Space is airless, and a near-vacuum. A space ecosphere must not only contain an oxygen atmosphere, it must contain its own food and water, and it must contain the equipment required to recycle waste products such as carbon dioxide, urine and excreta to extract oxygen, water and food. These facts also point to the challenges that such a programme must surmount. Living in space is a highly risky business and there have been a fair number of disasters in manned programmes in the past.

There are other concrete benefits to manned programmes. One is simply that human beings can improvise on the fly if an unexpected situation arises or there is an opportunity to observe something unusual. We are only beginning to learn the effects of microgravity and cosmic radiation on bio-organisms ranging from bacteria and plants to large mammals. There's room for an enormous range of experiments in this regard and some of the research at the International Space Station has already started paying off in concrete terms. Over the years, blue skies space research has led to huge advances in multiple technologies ranging from weather research to disaster management to ballpoint pens. Modern communications depend on satellites. Putting humans into space has also led to massive advances in medical technology and the basic understanding of how our bodies work.

Creating habitable space ecospheres requires a host of technologies, including the development of exotic materials and first-class recycling systems. Water purification and sewage recycling can, for example, be transformed by adapting such technology at scale; indeed, Nasa's water purification techniques are being deployed in Africa. An ethylene removal system called Advanced Astroculture (ADVASC) was developed in space. It removes viruses, bacteria and mould and is now used to prolong the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables and in winemaking. 

Keeping astronauts fit and healthy has also led to massive advances in medicine. To take some examples, microgravity can lead to a debilitating loss of muscle and bone density. There have been breakthroughs in the treatment of osteoporosis and exercise systems that maintain muscle mass, as scientists developed systems for keeping fit. Telemedicine, including miniaturised ultrasound units and remote monitoring systems, also developed through space research. So did laser surgery as a spin-off from developing better laser technology and robotic surgery is also an adaptation of space technology.

It's also worth noting that manned space research is a much larger employment generator (Isro has estimated that the plan will create 15,000 jobs) than unmanned research because many more technologies are involved. In that sense, it could be just the ticket for boosting India's space programme. Of course, it would require very substantial increases in the budget. That, in itself, would not be a bad thing since Isro has had to work on a shoestring since inception.