U.S. and Indian officials at JPL
U.S. and Indian officials, including ISRO Chairman S. Somanath and JPL Director Laurie Leshin (center), reviewed the status of the payload for the NISAR mission as part of a visit to the U.S. by Somanath that secured expanded cooperation between the two countries in space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Indian officials agreed this week to expand civil space cooperation, including training Indian astronauts and flying payloads on commercial lunar landers.

In meetings this week in Washington, held with little public fanfare, the United States and India agreed to expanded cooperation in civil space and laid the groundwork for potential new efforts.

In a White House statement Jan. 31, the countries announced they would arrange for training of an Indian astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. They did not disclose when the training would take place or what the “advanced training” would entail.

India has relied on Russia for astronaut training, sending several Indian Air Force pilots to the Star City cosmonaut training center for training in 2020. That training was part of India’s Gaganyaan human spaceflight program that includes development by the Indian space agency ISRO of a crewed spacecraft that would launch on a version of its GSLV Mark 3 rocket.

In 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Gaganyaan program would place Indian astronauts into orbit by August 2022, the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence. However, that first crewed launch has slipped to at least 2024 as ISRO gears up for a series of abort tests and uncrewed orbital test flights starting in the coming months.

The White House also announced that NASA and ISRO will work together to identify cooperation on NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where NASA purchases flights of research payloads on commercial lunar landers. NASA and ISRO will convene a meeting of companies that have CLPS contracts with Indian aerospace companies within the next year.

As soon as this summer, ISRO is expected to launch Chandrayaan-3, its second lunar lander mission. The lunar lander that was part of Chandrayaan-2 crashed while attempting a landing in 2019, although the orbiter is operating. ISRO is also collaborating with the Japanese space agency JAXA on a future lunar lander mission, called Lunar Polar Exploration or LUPEX, projected to launch later in the decade.

The meetings this week also sought to expand commercial space activities between the companies. The White House announced a new initiative between the Commerce Department and India’s Department of Space that “will foster U.S.-India commercial space engagement and enable growth and partnerships between U.S. and Indian commercial space sectors.”

India has started efforts to build up a commercial space industry in the country, with initiatives to support startups and give them access to ISRO facilities. Those startups include Skyroot Aerospace, which conducted a suborbital launch of its Vikram-S rocket in November from India’s main spaceport as a precursor to its Vikram 1 small launch vehicle, and Pixxel, which is developing a constellation of hyperspectral imaging satellites.

American companies, particularly communications and geospatial service providers, are looking to expand into India, but have long complained of regulatory challenges for doing so. SpaceX, for example, has been working since late 2021 to secure permission to offer its Starlink broadband service in the country. However, that service is still “pending regulatory approval,” according to a SpaceX map showing availability of Starlink globally.

The biggest cooperation between the United States and India in civil space currently is the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth science mission, which features a jointly-developed SAR payload that will be integrated onto an Indian-built satellite and launched by India in 2024.

Indian officials who met with American counterparts in Washington, including ISRO Chairman S. Somanath, later went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to see the NISAR payload, which is scheduled to be shipped to India in February.

The White House stated that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will travel to India in a reciprocal visit later in the year.

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...