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Should India Go Suborbital
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) May 30, 2011

The unreliability of GSLV is a clear obstacle to India's dreams of launching an orbital space vehicle with astronauts aboard.

What is happening with India's human spaceflight program? It's hard to be sure. India's space program has experienced mixed results in the past two years, with the success of some missions being overshadowed by some major failures.

The failures of India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) have drawn a lot of attention and rightly so. The GSLV represents a vital step in India's quest to field heavy launch vehicles. India's program is counting on GSLV now, for satellite launches. It's also counting on GLSV for tomorrow, when it hopes to use the vehicle to launch Indian astronauts into orbit.

The unreliability of GSLV is a clear obstacle to India's dreams of launching an orbital space vehicle with astronauts aboard. Right now, it's not really safe for unmanned satellites, let alone humans. Debugging this vehicle will take years, and there's always the possibility that more problems could emerge. This alone suggests that the timeline for an orbital astronaut launch will continue to slip.

There could be an alternative path to human spaceflight for India. The nation could embark on a short-term program for sub-orbital astronaut launches.

Let's not forget that the USA began its own human spaceflight program with suborbital launches of the Mercury spacecraft. Today, private space companies are preparing a new fleet of suborbital spacecraft for commercial astronauts. We also had the historic suborbital launches of Space Ship One from the USA in 2004, marking the debut of private human spaceflight. After decades of orbital flight, suborbital missions are clearly still in the game, and recognized as legitimate human space launches.

India has a fairly reliable launch system in the PSLV, or Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. This is a smaller, but more mature launch vehicle than GSLV. The success of a recent PSLV launch has lifted spirits in India, and again confirmed the relative performance of this vehicle. Sure, it's not exactly "man-rated", or safe enough to carry astronauts yet. But a program to man-rate the PSLV would be feasible.

PSLV has a fairly small payload capacity, but a carefully designed capsule could be tailored for it. This would possibly be similar to America's original Mercury capsule, a small, simple spacecraft with enough room for a single astronaut. PSLV could launch the capsule on a suborbital mission that would count as India's first independent human space mission.

The use of a suborbital trajectory would shorten the flight time and simplify the recovery. Gravity would bring the spacecraft back, without the need for retrorockets. Logistics would be simplified.

India has already flown an orbital capsule with scientific experiments on board. Much of the technology employed in this mission could be adapted for the capsule.

The system would need an escape option for the capsule and its astronaut. This could be achieved with a rocket tower on top of the capsule, as in India's orbital capsule plan and other spacecraft such as Soyuz. Alternatively, a rocket system beneath the capsule could be used. This rocket could also be employed to separate the capsule from its booster during a normal mission, and give a little extra altitude.

The capsule would then make a splashdown in the ocean, just as India recovered its first test capsule. The whole mission would take less than an hour from launch to landing.

The experience gained from suborbital spaceflight could serve as a stepping stone to greater things. Eventually, India will have to solve its problems with fielding larger boosters. This could result in a debugged GSLV or possibly a new type of rocket. By the time that happens, it should be easier to develop and orbital spacecraft, given the experience and infrastructure.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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