The GSLV Mark 2 rocket being rolled out to the pad ahead of its Aug. 11 launch. The rocket's upper stage appeared to malfunction shortly after ignition, causing the launch to fail. Credit: ISRO

WASHINGTON — After a year marked by little launch activity and one high-profile failure, the head of India’s space program says he expects much more in 2022, including an uncrewed test flight for its human spaceflight program.

In a New Year’s message published Jan. 3, K. Sivan, chairman of the Indian space agency ISRO, acknowledged that 2021 was something of a lost year for the agency but expressed optimism for the coming year.

“There is a feeling that very little happened in ISRO during 2021. That feeling is primarily due to less number of launches,” he wrote. He went on, though, to thank ISRO staff for “very significant contributions” for both operational missions and those still in development.

ISRO carried out only two launches in 2021. A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launched several satellites for India, Brazil and the United States in February. A Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle lifted off in August carrying an Earth imaging satellite, but an upper stage malfunction prevented the payload from reaching orbit.

Sivan said in the message that a committee identified the root cause of the failure and gave recommendations, although ISRO has not disclosed the details of that investigation or its recommendations. “Necessary design changes are being incorporated to improve the robustness of concerned systems,” he wrote.

Sivan said ISRO’s “immediate task” was three launches of Earth science missions. Two of then, EOS-4 and EOS-6, will launch on PSLV while EOS-2 will be on the inaugural launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, a dedicated smallsat launch vehicle under development for several years. He did not provide a specific schedule for those launches.

A key initiative for this year will be Gaganyaan, India’s human spaceflight program. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in August 2018 a goal of carrying out a first crewed launch by August 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. That goal, though, will be missed because of delays Indian officials have previously blamed on the pandemic.

Sivan said testing of engines, crew escape systems and parachutes are all in progress, along with training of astronaut candidates in India. “There is a directive to launch the first unmanned mission before the 75th anniversary of India’s independence and all the stake-holders are putting their best effort to meet the schedule,” he wrote. “I am sure that we will be able to meet this target.”

Sivan also appeared to rule out a launch in 2022 of Chandrayaan-3, India’s second lunar lander. That spacecraft, incorporating design changes after the failed landing of the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft in 2019, had been expected in 2022. Sivan said there had been “huge progress” in development of the spacecraft, but added that the mission “could be launched by [the] middle of next year.”

One area where there had been significant progress in the last year was regulatory reform intended to support the growth of India’s commercial space sector. “The impact of space sector reforms is already becoming visible,” Sivan wrote, citing progress by NewSpace India Ltd., a government-chartered company working on launch vehicle and satellite manufacturing.

One reason for the lack of activity at ISRO in 2021 was the pandemic, which led to extensive lockdowns in the country. Sivan hinted more such lockdowns may come because of the newest variant of the virus, omicron, that is now sweeping the globe.

“The last few months were a lull period for ISRO, due to Corona. However, all indicators point towards the next imminent wave,” he wrote. “I am sure that with the cooperation from all of you, we will be ready for facing any eventuality.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...