India is two decades behind China in terms of space technology and development, its neighbour and antagonist on the Asian continent and on a global scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the Gangetic country, which has killed 450,000 people and infected 32 million others, has also put the brakes on the plans and the multi-billion dollar investment pace of ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation that acts as a space agency and which has been chaired since January 2018 by the prestigious 64-year-old scientist Kailasavadivoo Siva.
The health problems have just been compounded by the failure of its launch in the early hours of Thursday, 12 August, from the Satish Dhawan base in the coastal area of Sriharikota, in the southeast of the country. The indigenously manufactured GSLV Mark II rocket suffered a technical failure five minutes into its ascent flight after ignition of the cryogenic engine of its final propulsion stage. Control of the vehicle was lost and the 2.28 ton observation satellite EOS-03, also of national production, burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere.
The first failure of an Indian launcher since 2017 is set to add to the effects of COVID-19, which is already impacting India's aspiration to take pride of place among the few nations with the capability to carry astronauts into outer space. ISRO is well advanced in the Gaganyaan programme, a newly designed space capsule intended to carry up to three astronauts into orbit 400 kilometres around the earth.
The aforementioned major national space initiative has the personal commitment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 71, who in December 2018 infused an additional fund of around $1.5 billion for a pair of Indian military pilots to orbit the Earth for the greater glory of its nearly 1.4 billion people, an initiative that seeks to match the goals achieved by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
But successive waves of the pandemic have swept across the Indian subcontinent, infecting many technicians in the space agency and national industry, who have had to stop work and interrupt deliveries of hardware and equipment across the country.
The consequence of the disruptions in the chain of work are delays in the two astronaut-free demonstration flights of Gaganyaan, which will embark a female-looking humanoid robot called Vyommitra. The first test without humans on board was scheduled for December this year and has been moved from June 2022 and the second is set for the end of 2022. The delays have an impact on the subsequent manned maiden flight: it was scheduled for August 2022 and has been moved to 2023, provided the test flights are successful and there is no need for one or two more tests.
While the first Indian astronauts are expected to take off, ISRO is moving ahead with a number of other plans associated with Gaganyaan. For example, the Defence Ministry's Food Research Laboratory has already prepared some 70 varieties of processed and dehydrated foods from the national cuisine, which the astronauts will consume in space: vegetable rolls, egg rolls, veg pulav - a rice dish with vegetables and spices - and moong dal halwa, a sweet dessert made from lentils, cardamom, pistachios and almonds.
It will also include idly, a South Indian dumpling made from rice and dehulled, fermented lentils; ghee, a kind of butter used in a similar way to olive or sunflower oil in Spain; and a food warmer. On the technological side, new spacesuits have already been made and tested. And in mid-July, a new variant of the Vikas rocket engine, which will be used to power the new version of the GSLV MkIII launcher that is to carry astronauts into orbit, was test-fired. The crew escape system, the re-entry of the atmospheric capsule (CARE) and its sealing, as well as almost everything else related to the mission, have also been evaluated.
Another stage that has already been completed is the astronaut training period for four Indian Air Force fighter pilots, whose identities have not yet been released. They were selected from 12 finalists out of 200 candidates. Their training phase took place at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow from 10 February 2020 to mid-March, the result of an agreement signed in June 2019 between Russia's state-owned Glavkosmos and ISRO.
It is known that after completing their training phase in Russia, they have undergone further medical tests and have been trained in radiation protection and emergency first aid in orbit by technicians from the Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology (MEDES) in Toulouse, France. It is not known whether this last stage took place in France or in India.
The governments in New Delhi and Beijing are eyeing each other in many areas of power, and one of them is space. Delhi's leaders did not sit idly by when China's first astronaut - fighter pilot and now General Yang Liwei - flew into space in mid-October 2003, putting China in third place in world astronautics behind the United States and Russia. Soon after, ISRO was given the go-ahead by the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to define the Gaganyaan programme.
But Gaganyaan was not accompanied by the necessary economic funds and it was not until Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014 that the project was given a definitive boost, with which New Delhi aims to obtain the autonomous capacity to take astronauts into space by 2023.