Test Flight to Kick Off India’s Human Exploration Plans, Including a Man on the Moon by 2040

Test Flight to Kick Off India’s Human Exploration Plans, Including a Man on the Moon by 2040

As India readies for a test flight of the crew escape system for a new human-rated launch vehicle this weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out exploration goals including an Indian space station by 2035 and a man on the Moon by 2040. India is celebrating the success of the Chandrayaan-3 robotic lunar lander in August and also looking forward to future robotic missions not only to the Moon, but Venus and Mars as well.

Modi chaired a meeting today to discuss progress on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Gaganyaan program to launch humans into space.

A human-rated version of India’s Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LVM3), HLVM3, and a crew module have been under development for several years. On Saturday, October 21, at 08:00 India Standard Time (Friday, October 20, 10:30 pm EDT), ISRO will launch the TV-D1 Flight Test from Sriharikota carrying an unpressurized, uncrewed module for a high altitude test of the crew module’s abort system that would be used in case of an emergency.

Similar tests were conducted for the new crew modules being used by NASA. The Launch Abort System for the Artemis program’s Orion capsule was tested in 2019. SpaceX did two tests for Crew Dragon, one if the emergency happened on the launch pad and the other if the abort was in-flight. Boeing conducted a pad abort test for Starliner.

Assuming this weekend’s abort test is successful, it will be followed by three uncrewed flights of the HLVM-3 leading to the first launch of a crew to Earth orbit in 2025.

Today, Modi directed ISRO to “aim for new and ambitious goals” including the ‘Bharatiya Antariksha Station, or Indian Space Station, by 2035, and sending the first Indian astronaut to the Moon by 2040. That entails building a Next Generation Launch Vehicle (NGLV), a new launch pad, and “human-centric laboratories and associated technologies.”

He also wants more robotic deep space probes including a Venus Orbiter Mission and a Mars Lander. India already launched a Mars orbiter. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan was launched in 2013 and arrived in 2014. ISRO lost contact with it in 2022. India’s most recent interplanetary mission is Aditya-L1, now enroute to the L1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun to study the Sun’s corona.

India has been launching satellites for decades — its first successful launch was in 1980 — but has been ramping up its efforts recently in both military and civilian space. An antisatellite test in 2019 caught the world’s attention. Its recent success with Chandrayaan-3 was a more positive development.

Despite those successes, the dates announced today for the first crew launch and the space station are delays from their original schedules. The first crew launch was planned for 2022, slipped to 2024 and now is 2025. The space station was initially envisioned in 2030.

Whether 2040 is realistic for India to put a man on the Moon remains to be seen. The associated costs were not revealed.

India is one of the signatories to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the United States is the only country India wants to work with in lunar exploration. In conjunction with the August meeting of the BRICS group of emerging national economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa — Modi suggested creating a BRICS space consortium. At the same time, BRICS is looking to expand its membership to other “Global South” countries, dubbed BRICS+,  leading some analysts to wonder if India might team up with the Chinese-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Laura Delgado López, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), sees joint space projects among the BRICS+ countries as “certainly possible,” but “the more significant impact of the expansion may be in the space governance domain.”  In a recent CSIS commentary, she writes that the “vast gap between the space programs of its members makes it unlikely that BRICS+ will materialize into significant multilateral projects” but “the BRICS+ label could boost ongoing bilateral and ‘minilateral initiatives'” like ILRS.

Modi’s press release today didn’t mention international collaboration. Instead the focus was on India’s own plans going forward.  The next step is this weekend’s test of the crew module abort system.

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