Interview with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair, Director, HSFC and VSSC in Malayalam

This is a Malaylam language interview on Asianet News with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair. He is the Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (this is where Indian rockets and launch vehicles are built) and Human Spaceflight Center (this is where India’s human spaceflight programme is being developed with astronaut training etc.).

Link to the Malayalam article that accompanies this interview.

The interviewer is Arun Raj K M. You can follow him here on Twitter. Below was his announcement for the interview posted on Twitter. He erroneously says 2020 in the tweet but he means 2022.

I do not have a cable connection at home, so I watched it on YouTube. The video was originally shared on Gareeb Scientist’s Discord (link to his YouTube channel, his Discord is for members only). At least two people on Twitter asked me for the English translation of this interview. Hence, I decided to create the English notes of the interview to help me share it with others.

There may be mistakes in my notes. Please refer to the original in Malayalam if you understand the language. Please help me with corrections in the comments section of this blog post.

  • Congratulations on the PSLV-C52 launch.
  • ISRO thinking about how to clear backlog and return to launch after COVID-19.
  • Next launch will be PSLV C-53.
    • within 2-3 months.
    • exact date will be known later.
  • Small Satellite Launch Vehicle
    • designed to launch 500 kg payload to Low Earth Orbit.
    • Has a lot of commercial possibilities.
    • Three solid stage with a liquid velocity trimming module for fourth stage.
    • All important tests are done. Vehicle being integrated right now.
    • Launch from Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota.
  • Gaganyaan – India’s human space flight programme
    • Working on how Orbital module can be separated in flight.
    • It is not necessary to use GSLV Mk-III for these tests.
    • So, a Test Vehicle (TV) was developed using a single stage Vikas engine. This engine is derived from second stage of the PSLV (PS-2) and the liquid strap-ons used on the GSLV (L-40).
    • This vehicle will be used to create the conditions of flight to test the abort of the Orbital Module.
    • 1-2 flights of the Orbital Module will be undertaken this year. This gives us confidence to make sure that the Crew can escape in case of any issues in-flight.
    • TV is also being developed as a multi-purpose test platform.
    • TV will be used to test air-breathing propulsion system.
    • TV will also be used to create flight conditions for the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) for various tests like straight-line flights of the RLV.
  • Human Spaceflight Launch Vehicle
    • GSLV Mk III is converted into a human-rated launch vehicle.
    • Satellite and payload fairing used on GSLV Mk III is replaced with an Orbital Module and Crew Escape System.
    • Vehicle design has changed. Hence, vehicle undergoing tests like wind tunnel tests etc. Many of the hardware used for the vehicle is being realized at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (India’s rocketry hub).
    • Each stage needs to be analyzed separately and together to identify points at which failure is possible. Then, need to provide redundancy to avoid failure.
    • Health parameters of the launch vehicle needs to be monitored constantly. If needed, flight should be aborted under appropriate conditions. Vehicle Health Monitoring System is being developed for this purpose.
  • Second Launch Pad
    • Second Launch pad is being modified to support human spaceflight.
    • Second Launch Pad will be able to launch both GSLV Mk III and human-rated GSLV Mk III.
    • Escape chutes are being developed on the Pad.
    • Testing facilities and other accessories needed for human spaceflight being added to Second Launch Pad.
  • Astronaut Training
    • 4 astronauts in Bengaluru at Human Space Flight Center.
    • Training provided in Russia was generic in nature.
    • The Indian training round involves familiarizing astronauts with the human rated launch vehicle and the Orbital Module.
    • It also involves theory, practical, mental fitness, physical fitness etc.
    • Training likely to take 1.5 years. (I am assuming this is the Indian training round and not the total training time.)
    • Understand which areas are accessible in the Orbital Module.
    • Astronauts will also undergo simulator training. Simulators are getting ready at a temporary facility being developed in Bengaluru. This will be inaugurated soon.
  • Collaborating with Glavkosmos, other collaborations? (This was the question asked, but Unnikrishnan replied about Indian contribution. I think the interviewer intended to ask about any other foreign collaboration.)
    • This is a truly national programme.
    • We are tying up with industries, academia and other national laboratories where the technology is already available.
      • DRDO lab in Agra provided us with the parachutes.
      • Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore is providing the astronauts with food.
      • We have signed 12 MoUs with various national laboratories.
  • Technology Transfer to the public in the future. (Again, I think the interviewer asked about generally but Unnikrishnan is answering from PoV of human spaceflight).
    • Life support system in capsule could help in living in high altitudes. (possibly, in locations like Siachen for the Indian Army)
    • Inflatable Habitat
    • Portable Life Support System
    • Flight Suits
    • There are also many other things that we cannot foresee today.
  • Private Ecosystem
    • Space was a largely the domain of the government in the 1950s and 1960s. Private companies are playing a bigger role in space across the world.
    • Especially in America, where today they are also involved in human spaceflight and dreams of travelling to Mars.
    • We need to increase private sector participation in the Indian space programme.
    • Mechanisms like IN-SPACe (India’s regulator for the space sector) help.
    • Incubators, access to ISRO faciliteis will help.
  • Do you see private companies like Skyroot etc. as competitors?
    • No.
    • We have to encourage private ecosystem in the space sector to lower cost, to foster technological innovations etc.
    • We need to handhold them today to help them achieve these tomorrow.
    • We help them in reviews, provide test facilities, identify research areas etc.
    • By doing this, we want to increase India’s share in the space economy.
    • ISRO will do science missions.
  • Chandrayaan-3 , India’s third lunar mission
    • It will happen this year.
    • VSSC’s responsibility is for the launch vehicle, the GSLV Mk III.
    • We will make sure that VSSC delivers the same on time.
  • Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle
    • Studies on this are on-going. They are not yet in project stage.
    • These are revealed to the public when a proposal is sent to the Government after study.
    • This will be based on capabilities of ISRO, Indian industrial capability etc.
  • GSLV (what was earlier called the GSLV Mk II)
    • The cause of the failure of the GSLV-F10 has been isolated.
    • We are working on fixing this issue. Fix implementation is in progress.
    • NAVIC’s Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS-1J) will be launched on the GSLV after the fixing the issue.
  • NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR)
    • Joint collaboration between ISRO and NASA. Work in progress.
    • Main responsibility of VSSC is the GSLV. Work in progress to make sure that the launch vehicle is ready to launch on time.
  • Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota (India’s space port)
    • We are developing the capability to launch multiple rockets and launch vehicle. These are in the final stages of implementation.
    • We are also building the capability to increase the number of PSLV launches. These are also in the final stages of development.
    • We are building the capability to assemble and integrate GSLV Mk III in two locations, brought to the launch pad and launched.
  • Science Missions
    • Aditya-L1 (Mission to study the Sun) – to be launched in the second half of this year.
    • Launch vehicle preparations are in progress in VSSC.
  • The change in naming conventions (from OceanSat, EduSAT to EOS and CMS etc.) is for better monitoring of the missions.
  • Semi-cryogenic engine
    • These are being built to uprate the capability of the GSLV Mk III (to help it carry more mass to orbit).
    • LPSC, Mahendragiri is working on developing this stage and associated testing facilities.
  • Vyom-mitra (a humanoid robot developed by ISRO)
    • It will fly on the first uncrewed mission of Gaganyaan.
    • It is now undergoing testing and qualification for space conditions for launch.
    • Robotics is an important area. We see these robots as co-travelers with humans to the Moon and Mars (for interplanetary missions).
    • Hence, we are testing and developing our capability in robotics.

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