The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) “half humanoid” robot Vyommitra caused a stir at its unveiling in Bengaluru last week. The robot is driven by artificial intelligence. “She” speaks two languages and uses her hands to control and monitor functions on the spacecraft. Isro will send her on at least two unmanned missions before it goes ahead with the manned Gaganyaan orbital mission, which is planned for 2022. Isro also displayed prototype spacesuits, crew modules, and escape modules. Vyommitra will mimic the crew’s actions and operations in her two missions. She may accompany the three-person crew on the manned mission. This development is an interesting demonstration of technical capability. The robot provides an easier interface for a crew than screens. Since she uses hands and possesses upper body mobility (the humanoid is legless), her operations will help Isro understand if the controls are convenient for humans.
It is unknown what her tolerances to factors such as high gravity and zero gravity are. Also, Vyommitra’s sensitivity to hard radiation and temperature changes is unknown. These are all important variables, especially for manned missions. The crew module must be telemetered for all data that affects biological functions. The Gaganyaan orbiter will endure huge swings in gravitational forces. As a rocket accelerates, gravitational force increases. Once it’s in orbit, it will be in low gravity, or zero gravity. The mission will encounter hard radiation once it moves out of the shield of the atmosphere, which blocks most radiation. There will be massive temperature fluctuations to manage. The module will need a heat shield to prevent it burning up due to friction as it re-enters the atmosphere. Instruments can work in a vacuum, across large gravitational variations, and they can tolerate far larger variations in temperature and radiation than humans. In addition, humans have to be returned safely. Apart from the physical dimensions of keeping humans safe and retrieving them, there are also the psychological dimensions of keeping them mentally stable.
Isro has sent medical missions to France and Russia, and put prospective astronauts through stringent physical screening. On the engineering side, it must design crew modules with adequate heat shields; couches to cushion the crushing effects of high gravity, and recycling systems for water and oxygen. It has to provide a low-weight diet with high calories. Astronauts have to learn to live in space, which means learning exercise regimes which maintain muscle mass, quite apart from performing scheduled tasks. Finally, there has to be a seamless retrieval process, picking up the three-person crew at the end of the five-day mission. Manned space exploration is dangerous. If anything goes wrong, people can die. Many US and Soviet missions have ended tragically with the deaths of astronauts and cosmonauts. The payoff comes in multiple ways. Human beings can cope with “unprogrammed” situations that Vyommitra would not be able to handle. The other thing is the enormous contribution space research has made to medicine in terms of extending the understanding of how bodies work in extreme conditions, and via advances in telemedicine. Gaganyaan will force Isro into a new higher orbit in terms of its capabilities. Vyommitra is only the beginning.