Indian Cosmonaut Sharma: Nation Missed Opportunity on ISS

India’s only astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, has some thoughts about the growing Indian space program as he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his Soyuz flight to the Salyut 7 space station. In an interview with The Hindu, he had criticism for both ISRO and NASA:

If India had collaborated with the International Space Station, as France has done, it would have “by default” had astronauts routinely trained — either in the U.S. or Russia — and “formed a strong astronaut cadre.” He added: “We could have got there earlier — perhaps five years ago. A quarter-century seems like a long time.”

While ISRO has its own priorities such as communication and telemedicine that have touched many lives, “I believe we could have had the manned space programme running parallel. It was an opportunity missed,” he said.

He also criticized NASA for allowing program scheduling pressures to compromise crew safety in the destruction of Columbia, which killed Indian American astronaut Kalpana Chawla and six crewmates:

ISRO “will do better,” he said. “Our space agency’s work culture is not hierarchical. When we are doing something that is potentially dangerous it is important to have an open protocol of communication. ISRO owes most of its successes, including Chandrayaan’s, to this model.”

We’ll see. A human spaceflight program is a much larger and complicated task than sending a small space probe to the moon. As ISRO grows, it will become more bureaucratic and find itself under more financial pressures. This is inevitable.

So is hubris. Space is a difficult and dangerous place in which to operate, as other spacefaring nations have discovered. Get a bit cocky…that’s when things come back to bite you. India has had some impressive successes in space, but from here on in, everything gets a lot more complicated. The stakes get higher. A bit of humility is required.