Rockets of Today

GAGANYAAN (गगनयान) — India, 2024?/2025?

India’s space agency, ISRO, is working away at making a crewed capsule. It looks roughly like a first-gen Dragon in shape, with steep sides and a flat top. They plan to use its first crewed flight to have three “gagannauts” spend three days testing the interior systems and doing little zero-gee experiments. Later flights might last up to seven days. They started a crew selection process and hinted that they might go with a group of all women. But as expected, they backed away from that. For the early uncrewed test flights, of which there will be several, they plan to fly a humanoid robot named Vyonmitra... which has a feminine face and wig.

The size of the thing is a bit smaller than a Dragon: 3.5 meters wide at the base and 3.6 in height, with eight cubic meters of room inside. But it is a lot lighter than a Crew Dragon: just 3.8 tons dry and 5.3 tons fully supplied. With the service module you’re up to 8.2 tons before adding the crew, which is about two thirds of the Dragon’s total. The service module has two solar panel wings, and a cluster of five orbital maneuvering engines that combine for 2.2 kilonewtons of thrust. These plus the sixteen reaction control thrusters burn monomethylhydrazine with mixed oxides of nitrogen — a blend they also used in the top stage of the PSLV. The capsule will splash down under two parachutes, and if just one deploys it’s supposed to still be okay for those inside. I’m not sure about what the service module will look like, as illustrative renders have shown two different designs: a round one with short wings (shown here) and a hexagonal one with long wings. I don’t know which design is newer, or if maybe they are both valid for different missions.

It will fly atop India’s biggest rocket, the LVM 3, or rather a variant called HLVM3 which has added safety features and less aggressive performance. The capsule will be covered by a fairing with a launch escape tower on it, like the Orion. This will stay attached until the rocket is flying on its upper stage only.

They did a bunch of early development on heat shields, reentry techniques, escape systems, space suits, and so on. Once those steps were proven, budgetary obstacles were removed and the program could proceed without the political delays which hampered its earlier phases. They then did full scale tests such as reentry and launch escape. Still, the initial version will lack some common features, such as the ability to dock. Next up are some more suborbital test flights.

The whole project got set back about two years due to covid. ISRO launched only two rockets per year during 2020 and 2021, where they had previously been doing six or more per year, and forthcoming projects made almost no progress during that time. With other delays of the usual sort, the project has now slipped by four years at least.

The word gaganyaan means “celestial vehicle”.