Boeing, ISRO Could Cooperate on Cryogenic Tanks, Human Spaceflight

GSLV Mark III engine test (Photo: ISRO)
GSLV Mark III engine test (Photo: ISRO)

Boeing might be able to help India to master composite cryogenic fuel tanks, a crucial rocket technology essential to the nation’s ambitious space ambitions, a company official said.

Vivek Lall, who is Boeing’s Defence, Space and Security vice president in India, said the American aerospace giant and ISRO are discussing cooperation in “launch escape system (LES), vehicle health monitoring system and abort triggers (VHMSAT), life support system, crew accommodations and other areas such as reusable space systems and composite cryogenic tanks.”

These technologies are crucial for India’s nascent human spaceflight program, which hopes to launch crews into space around 2016-17. Cryogenic engine technology is also key to India entering the international satellite launch industry with its GSLV rocket.

ISRO’s effort to develop cryogenic upper stage technology has been long and troubled. The nation’s bid to work with the Russians to develop the technology was blocked by U.S. anti-proliferation sanctions. So it purchased seven stages from Russia and set about trying to develop the technology on its own. After 17 years of effort, the space agency launched its first cryogenic stage last April. The engine fired for only 0.9 seconds before the turbo pump failed, sending a valuable satellite into the Bay of Bengal.

ISRO plans to try again later this year. The agency is down to a single Russian cryogenic stage, which is limiting India’s launch options. Until the space agency masters cryogenic engine technology, it can’t compete in the lucrative telecommunications satellite launch market.

The possible Boeing-ISRO collaboration is a result of a decision earlier this year by the U.S. government to lift high-tech sanctions against India. The decision has opened the door for cooperation on a broad range of civilian and military technologies. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently led a trade mission to India that included Boeing, Lockheed Martin and 22 other companies.

A Boeing CST-100 crew module docks at a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

In an interview, Lall also mentioned the CST-100 crew module that is being developed by Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace to send crews to the International Space Station and Bigelow’s private facilities.

“This programme also opens the door for collaboration between Boeing and India/ISRO in these areas of human spaceflight and commercial crew transportation,” he said.

The seven-person vehicle is using Atlas 5 as its baseline rocket, but it is being designed to fly on multiple rockets. The CST-100 has been supported by NASA funding under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The project is on a short list being considered for additional CCDev funding due to be awarded next month.