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Friday, February 25, 2011

An Iranian aboard India's manned Space mission

I mean, come to think of it - why not? Nothing would convey the message "we are homies" better than an Iranian aboard an Indian manned Space mission.

proposed India-Iran Manned Space Mission

Okay, it is imperative that some backgrounder be provided to this proposal. First thought of this, keeping in mind Saudi Arabia/Vietnam, but then the idea is just as relevant when one also considers Iran, though each country, for a different reason altogether. The reasons are, admittedly, somewhat nebulous at present & the proposal runs the risk of being reversed in light of further insight, but I shall try to say it out the way I feel about it right now, nevertheless.

People keeping track of such developments would have learnt that Iran had recently re-iterated its claim of intending to perform a manned Space mission by 2022. Now, looking at the current status & activities of Iran's Space programme1, it should be amply clear the required building blocks necessary for performing a Human Space Flight are nowhere visible on Iran's horizon.

Let us, for example, compare maximum weight of the payload that some contemporary launch vehicles, rated for human space flight+, that it can place in the Low Earth Orbit [LEO], with that of the most powerful rocket Iran currently possesses.

Launch Vehicle

Country Payload [LEO]
GSLV India ~5000 A
Soyuz-FG Russia ~7420 B
Long March 2F China ~7600 C
Simorgh SLV Iran ~60 D

As can be seen, while payload capacities of the other launch vehicles are in thousands of Kg [all above 5000 kg], the one Iran has claimed to have developed has a capacity of 60 kilograms - it can lift objects less than the weight of 1 full grown adult human being*. & even that launch vehicle has never been tested till now [24th February 2011].

Then there is the critical process of human rating the system - validating it & putting in place redundancies in case of failure to ensure safety of the onboard human operators - paramount consideration in any manned mission. All this is achieved through an exhaustive process of testing &, if required, re-designing, followed by even more testing till one achieves level of efficiency & reliability as is the standards in Human Space flight programme. An important part of Technology validation would require observing & evaluating performance of the critical systems through multiple unmanned test launches prior to the actual mission, in order to generate reliable statistical data for the eventual manned mission.

A programme of the scale & complexity, as demanded by a manned Space mission programme, is spread over a couple of decades, as seen in case of China & also India - a timeframe considered reasonable & acceptable only if you have a longer prior experience with unmanned Space launches & have validated the technology building blocks through them.

The purpose behind stating these facts is by no means to deride their Space programme itself, per se. Any genuine manned Space mission programme that Iran may have initiated, if pursued with due diligence & sincerity would reach its logical conclusion in its due course of time. Especially for Iran, financing such a programme should not be a constraint, what with their huge oil reserves. However, in absence of satisfying any of the above-mentioned requisite parameters, any declaration of intent of becoming a manned Space-faring nation within 11 years sounds like a lot of bluster & bravado, unsubstantiated by the work & effort put in thus far.

India, with its long, amicable relationship with the Iranian2 regime & its own manned Space programme3, is uniquely positioned to put the walk into this Iranian talk, without necessarily impinging upon anybody's@ interests.

  • An Iranian aboard one of India's manned Space mission would serve as a catalyst in further improving & cementing the good, albeit not necessarily the best of, relations enjoyed between the two nations.
  • An Iranian in Space would serve to be a cause for pride, jubilation & euphoria for its population - the kind experienced by India, when Indian Air Force [IAF] pilot Wing Commander [retd] [then a Squadron Leader] Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian Cosmonaut in Space.

[Video] Then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi speaking to Cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma while in Space

  • The generally positive overall outlook amongst Iranians towards India#, would be further enhanced with this symbol of co-operation & friendship between the two.
  • This gesture of bonhomie with Shia Iran would help establish an even greater positive image of India & Indians amongst the world's Shia population, especially the ones outside India, amongst whom the Ayatollahs in control Iran hold a significant sway. Such positive perception would hold India in good stead at times of its engagement with such people in position of power.
  • A Shia-Sunni rivalry$ between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] & the Islamic Republic of Iran5 to exercise clout demands that any achievement flaunted by one must be matched or bested by the other. With the Saudis had already having paid for the joy-ride of one of it own Astronauts6, it is natural for Iran to aspire for the same. Since Russia's Space manned programme has long been enmeshed with that of the USA's, it makes them out reach for the Iranians. Iranian desire to match the Saudi sojourn remains strong.
  • As a reciprocal gesture for the manned mission, India may also be in a position to secure vital deals & arrangements for access to Iran's vast hydrocarbon reserves - a much sought after commodity that is needed to ensure India's continued development. The Iranian's trip itself could even be paid for by them, making it a commercially viable arrangement.

Am also not oblivious to the fact that people with immeasurably higher knowledge, insight & competence suspect Iran's Space programme of being a cover for developing long-range Ballistic missiles4. However, just as a Vietnamese Cosmonaut aboard a Russian [then, Soviet] Space mission did nothing to further Vietnam's Missile development programme [not known to have one, or a primitive one at best], other than to reiterate & reaffirm friendship between the two during the Cold War, so too would an Iranian travelling aboard one of India's mission would serve to fulfill only those purpose served by his Vietnamese counterpart. Their missile programme is unlikely to receive any leg-up with the proposed arrangement which is likely to continue nevertheless.

The way I perceive it, India taking along with them an Iranian to Space & Iran's missile development programme, under the guise of a Space programme are independent issues.

India's maiden mission is scheduled for take-off in around 2016-2018. Successfully completed, a second manned mission, may, in all probability, be planned for around 2022-2025% - just around the time Iran has declared its intent to send its man into Space.

India must take the initiative & seize this opportunity to make this currently hollow sounding declaration by Iran come true, through an arrangement that would be beneficial for all involved before some other competing country decides to offer the same.

It is absolutely imperative that India leverage the use of Science & Technology to further its interest & achieve National objectives for the benefit of its citizens.

Mr. C.S Harish, Deputy Project Director [escape module] for India's manned Space mission spoke at the recently held Aero India 2011 air show at the Yelahanka Airbase in Bengaluru [Bangalore]. He gave a concise overview about the challenges & technology requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to accomplish a safe & successful manned Space mission - do watch.

Indian perspective on Manned Space Missions - reasons & required Systems & Technology

Also read: Timeline: China's spaceflight history || Timeline of China's space industry || Google-generated timeline of China's Space programme

+ Or being rated rated, as in case of India

* Its payload capacity is 8233.33% less than the next least powerful Launch Vehicles being rated for Human Space Flight.

# as is the impression I get after interacting with the fairly large number of them at the University

% pure speculation on my part - no dates announce AFAIK

@ Countries with which India enjoys warm relations, but which in turn hold an antagonistic view of Iran

$ Followers of Shia faith of Islam are not recognized as Muslims in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

References & further reading