New Delhi: While India and France announced a slew of pacts and billions of dollars in trade deals to much fanfare on Saturday, Indo-French co-operation quietly took one small step towards a joint giant leap towards literally reaching for the stars. Tucked in among the 14 pacts signed between the two countries as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron watched on was a bold new vision for space co-operation.
The four page "India-France Joint Vision for Space Cooperation" opens the door for the two countries to embark on an astronaut program. The two leaders also presented a vision for a future where they will explore the Moon, Mars and particularly Venus.
The development of inter-planetary rovers is also high on the agenda as is Earth observation. A joint constellation of satellites is in the offing as is a satellite called "Trishna" or thirst that will map water resources on Earth. That India was committing to the development of a joint constellation of satellites with another country for the first time, showed the deep trust shared between New Delhi and Paris.
The plans were listed in two agreements signed by ISRO chairman K Sivan and CNES President Jean-Yves LeGall in New Delhi on Saturday.
For perhaps the first time in India's rich space-faring history, human space flight finds mention in any bilateral joint statement. The joint vision says that "developing technologies for human exploration of the universe, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and French National Space Agency (CNES) would jointly develop capabilities and critical technologies addressing for radiation shielding solutions; personnel hygiene and waste management system; and design of man-in-loop simulators for human space flight as well as bioastronautics."
Welcoming the expanded joint statement K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of ISRO said it was a "major and positive step forward towards an Indian astronaut program" especially since both countries have had strong and fruitful co-operation both in space technology development and space commerce in the last five decades.
The Indian government is already funding ISRO to the tune of about Rs 150 crore for the development of "critical technologies" necessary for human space flight but the last Indian to fly into space was Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma in 1984 on a Soviet mission.
Since then, two brave women, Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, both American citizens but of Indian origin have flown into space on American missions.
Experts at ISRO say they would need anything between Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 crore to put an "Indian in space, on an Indian rocket from Indian soil" and they could make that happen within a 7-10 year period after the Indian space agency gets a go ahead from the government.
India already has a rocket capable of putting a four-ton class crew module in space using the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MK III and a rudimentary crew module has already been tested in 2014.
The joint statement also said "for exploring the solar system and beyond: ISRO and CNES would work together on autonomous navigation of rovers in Moon, Mars and other planets; aero braking technologies for planetary exploration; modelling of Mars and Venus atmosphere; and inflatable systems for Venus exploration."
"Both sides can embark on complex high technology space science and planetary exploration missions in future. In particular, CNES could provide support to ISRO for the navigation of future moon rovers; CNES and ISRO, with the support of Laboratoire de Meteorologie Dynamique (LMD, CNRS), will jointly work on the modelling of Mars and Venus atmospheres; CNES could be involved in the definition of the scientific goals and preparatory studies of the future planetary missions of ISRO; and both agencies will study the possibility of embarking French science instruments on board the future interplanetary like Moon, Mars and asteroids in Indian missions," it added.