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Explained: How NASA taking Indian astronaut to space station powers ISRO's mega mission

The NASA-ISRO collaboration aims to share technological insights and reduce costs, with potential benefits including enhancing India's expertise in human spaceflight, fostering scientific cooperation, and inspiring the younger generation. Girish Linganna explains

Explained How NASA taking Indian astronaut to space station powers ISRO's mega mission
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First Published Dec 7, 2023, 2:38 PM IST

On November 28, US space agency NASA's Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his interest in collaborating with India on ambitious space projects. One of the key areas of discussion was the possibility of sending an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS). During his visit to India, Nelson highlighted ongoing plans to help train and dispatch an Indian astronaut to the ISS on an American spacecraft by the end of 2024.

To facilitate the Indo-US collaboration, NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have been working on a strategic framework for cooperation in human spaceflight. The seeds of the idea germinated in talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden when the former visited the US on his first state visit in June this year. This represents a significant milestone in the growing space partnership between India and the US.

It is expected that the Indian astronaut chosen for the mission will be trained and ready to launch on a journey to the ISS by the end of 2024. However, the decision to select the Indian astronaut for the ISS mission will be entrusted to ISRO, taking into account their unique criteria and space programme goals. 

NASA, at present, dispatches astronauts to the ISS on the Falcon-9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft of Elon Musk's firm SpaceX.

The Duration of the Stay

The duration of the Indian astronaut’s stay in the ISS will depend on the scientific objectives and experiments that India decides for the mission. However, based on previous ISS missions, the average duration of an astronaut’s stay is approximately six months. 

Some astronauts have stayed longer -- such as Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, who completed a year-long mission, spending 340 days aboard the ISS. On the other hand, Christina Koch had to cut short her mission due to the COVID-19 pandemic and return to Earth after only 328 days.

Ultimately, the precise length of the Indian astronaut’s stay will be determined by multiple factors, including spacecraft availability, launch schedules, crew health and safety, as well as the scientific objectives and goals of the mission. 

Benefits of Collaboration

Collaborating with nations that have a credible track record in space exploration can provide not only valuable technological insights but also reduce costs. Establishing such partnerships -- especially with countries that have experience of launching, and running, space stations -- can provide mutual benefits through knowledge- and resource-sharing.

However, India’s aspirations go beyond participating in the ISS programme as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already directed ISRO to work diligently towards establishing the country’s own space station, the ‘Bharatiya Antariksha Station’, by 2035, building upon India’s commendable successes in space exploration so far.

Encouragingly, the United States has also expressed its willingness to support India in constructing the country’s commercial space station by 2040 if India chooses to seek such cooperation. This collaboration has the potential to combine the knowledge and skills of both nations -- driving innovation and furthering human exploration in space. 

India’s commitment to space science is evident through its active involvement in various initiatives. The country has not only signed the Artemis Accords, which reaffirms its dedication to space exploration principles but is also undertaking the Gaganyaan project, which aims to launch Indian astronauts into low-Earth orbit either by late 2024 or early 2025.

How India Benefits From Collaborating With The US

* Enhancing India’s capabilities and expertise in human spaceflight by collaborating on building its own space station and planning an interplanetary mission, aligning with the goals of the Gaganyaan project

* Fostering scientific and technological cooperation and exchange with the US and other countries involved in the ISS programme, potentially leading to breakthrough discoveries and innovations in various fields -- such as astronomy, biology, medicine, engineering and education

* Demonstrating India’s commitment to the peaceful and responsible utilization of outer space, as well as its intention to actively participate in future space missions -- such as the American-led endeavour to return humans to the Moon by 2025 and, eventually, explore Mars and beyond

* Inspiring and motivating India’s younger generation to pursue careers and interests in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), while also instilling a sense of wonder at, and appreciation for, the vast universe. 

As India continues its space exploration journey, these collaborative efforts and milestones hold enormous potential for shaping the country’s space endeavours and contributing to mankind’s broader understanding of the universe.

The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.

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