RT: Star City adventure: Take a sneak peek into India’s first space crew training in Russia
The Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center has shared a few tantalizing details of the secretive program with RT.
India intends to send a crew into space in late 2021 or early 2022, aboard the vehicle called Gaganyaan ("Sky Vehicle"), as part of its push to join the elite club of space-going nations. New Delhi has taken up the issue in all seriousness and sent four carefully selected candidates to the GCTC in Star City, to learn from its vast experience in manned spaceflight.
The choice of venue is not surprising. The first – and so far, only – Indian astronaut in space, Rakesh Sharma, flew on board the Soviet Soyuz T-11 spaceship to the famous Salyut-7 space station in 1984. His backup, Ravish Malhotra, also trained at Star City but never went to space.
A very special training course
Details of the training program, including the identities of would-be astronauts, have been kept secret. Officials at the GCTC have been able to share only a few details with RT.
Located just outside Moscow, Star City is still humming with the spirit of early space age. Cosmonaut and astronaut trainees work under the portraits of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in orbit, and live in the same buildings where Aleksey Leonov trained to conduct a spacewalk, before becoming the first human to actually do so.
On average, Russian cosmonauts spend five years in training before they are considered ready to become a part of a space crew. The 12-month course the Indian astronauts have just embarked on is somewhat different – and not just because it is shorter.
“This is a program specifically designed to [suit the needs of the Indian astronauts] and coordinated with the Indian side,” GCTC head Pavel Vlasov told RT, explaining that it involves an enhanced and advanced engineering course in addition to general space training and physical conditioning.
Over the year they will spend at Star City, the Indians are expected to master all the ins and outs of the Russian Soyuz spaceship that will make it much easier for them to eventually pilot the Gaganyaan. To do that, the space crew will also have to learn Russian, since all the on-board inscriptions and documentation inside the Soyuz are in Russian.
The Russian specialists are doing their best to help the Indians in coping with the unenviable task of learning a new language within such a short period of time, without slowing down their training. The GCTC has professional interpreters and language tutors within its staff while most instructors have a good command of English as well, even though existing regulations say the training should be provided in Russian only.
Another challenge has been mastering the Russian cuisine. The Indian visitors – both the astronauts and the accompanying staff – have been dining at the GCTC cantina along with their Russian colleagues, and the food is quite different from what they are used to back home. They seem to have taken well to it, Vlasov says, adding that Star City cooks have also seen to the needs of their guests, including offering vegetarian meals and removing meat offerings – such as beef – that would be “unacceptable” to the Indians.
Surviving in winter: Taiga, steppe and sea
One of the most exciting parts of the training is a survival course, designed to teach the astronauts what they would need to do should their reentry vehicle land in some wilderness. Right now, the Indians are preparing to spend some time in the woods and swamps of the Moscow region, with only wild animals for company.
“First they go through classroom training, then practice, and only then they will be sent as part of two crews, with our instructor on a 3-day-2-night survival [marathon] under real-life conditions,” Vlasov said.
That is not to say they will be all alone in the night, though. A team of doctors will closely monitor their status. The aspiring astronauts will learn to survive with only a standard Soyuz emergency supply at their disposal, Vlasov said.
Vlasov is quite aware that this might be a severe challenge for the Indians, who are not quite used to Russian winters – even as unusually mild as this year has been. After the survival course, the Indians will get a week off to recover.
The snow-covered Russian forests and swamps are only the first survival challenge. The Indians are scheduled for a stay in the steppes and even the sea. That last is not a call for panic, though: Instead of the bleak frost of the Arctic Ocean in midwinter, the astronaut candidates will go to the Black Sea resort of Sochi in the summer.
Vlasov is confident the Indians would eventually succeed in overcoming every hardship they could face during the training, since they are experienced and well-trained military specialists, after all.
“It is quite clear that all of them are test pilots with vast flight experience in good physical shape and extensive engineering knowledge. Our training loads should not be too hard for them.”
Sky is no limit
India’s first manned space mission is a “large-scale and high-profile” program not just for New Delhi but for Moscow as well, according to Dmitry Loskutov, director general of Glavkosmos – the Russian space agency’s subsidiary dealing with international space-related contracts, among other things.
Loskutov says that India is eager to learn from Russia’s experience and has agreed with all the training and contract recommendations the Russian side offered. Cooperation between the two nations extends beyond just the space crew training. Moscow and New Delhi are now discussing a possibility of Russia supplying some vital building blocks for the milestone mission, such as life support systems and thermal control.
In addition to working together on the Gaganyaan mission, Russia has welcomed India’s future participation in the International Space Station program and signed a landmark deal in 2018 that includes cooperation on space projects and joint technology development.
New Delhi is rapidly catching up with the leading space nations as it continues to develop its ambitious space program. The Indians have already achieved remarkable successes in rocket- and spaceship-building, conducting dozens of successful space launches.
India became the fourth nation to reach Mars in 2014, when it successfully sent an orbiter to the Red Planet. Its lunar exploration program is one of the most ambitious as well. Last year, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) attempted to conduct a soft landing near the Moon’s south pole – something no one has done before. The unmanned lunar mission did not go exactly as planned, however – even though the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter arrived successfully, the Vikram lander thrusters failed and it crashed into the moon. ISRO refuses to give up, and is expected to try again in 2021.