India gets a new head of its space agency

The new colonial movement: The Modi government of India has put a new person in charge of its space agency ISRO, scientist Dr S Somanath.

As he takes over as the 10th ISRO chairman, succeeding K Sivan, that will be one of the biggest challenges before Somanath — putting the agency’s human space flight programme back on track following setbacks due to launch failures, the Covid-19 outbreak, and a general slowdown since the failure of the Chandrayaan 2 robotic moon landing mission in September 2019.

As director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre since 2018, and as head of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Somanath has been closely associated with developing the key rocket technology that will go into the mission.

He was the project director and mission director for the development of the GSLV Mk-III rocket that will be used for the programme. He has also been involved in making it usable for human flight in recent days.

Like Sivan, Somanath’s appointment is for a limited period of time, presently set for three years. Sivan’s had been extended a year during the Wuhan panic. Whether the almost complete shut down of India’s space effort during that panic, plus several launch failures, were a factor in this change is unclear, though they likely played a part in the decision. If all had gone as originally planned, Sivan’s appointment might have been renewed.

Somanath’s extensive background as a rocket engineer however appears to make him ideal for heading ISRO in the next few years, when it attempts its first manned launch.

In related news, ISRO today announced that it has successfully completed a 720 second qualification test of the cryogenic engine to be used in that manned flight.