India has no plans to undertake a manned mission to the Moon in the near future, according to a senior government official.

Following the successful 2008 launch of Chandrayaan-I, the country’s first unmanned lunar mission, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had proposed launching a manned Moon mission by 2020. But that now seems to be a distant dream.

“There is no immediate plan for a manned mission to the Moon,” says V. Narayanasamy, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. “The work on the Indo-Russian joint project, Chandrayaan-II, is in progress. ... But  Chandrayaan-II does not envisage [a] manned lunar expedition.”

Chandraayan-II will include an unmanned orbiter, a lander supplied by Russia and a Rover module to be developed by India for in-situ scientific exploration of the lunar surface. The ISRO is aiming to launch its unmanned second lunar mission within a couple of years.

In a Sept. 5 interview with Aviation Week, ISRO spokesman D.P. Karnik says a manned lunar mission is not in the cards for the near future, and could only take place after ISRO succeeds in its proposed orbital human spaceflight program.

“In the first place, we require a qualified vehicle with which a man can be sent to the Moon,” he says. “We are currently aiming to have a manned space flight program. A manned lunar mission will come much later.”

However, though India has started developing critical technologies for its human spaceflight mission, the government still hasn’t given final approval for the project. “The government has not yet taken up the human spaceflight program, estimated, initially, in the year 2009, at 124 billion rupees [$2.25 billion],” a senior government official says.

The orbital spaceflight mission envisages sending a two-person crew in a 3-ton spacecraft to low Earth orbit for about a week. “Once the project gets the final approval, it will take at least six to seven years for the launch,” the official says. ISRO had initially hoped that it would be able to launch the mission in 2016.

Ajey Lele, an analyst at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank, dubs the deferral of India’s manned Moon mission a “step in the right direction.

“A manned mission has more difficulties than advantages. It is better to develop a robotic mission that is more useful and has more output than a manned mission, which is only about fanfare,” Lele says.

According to observers, the huge cost and the recent twin failures of India’s homegrown Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) could be the reasons for the delay in getting the final nod for the project. “The successful PSLV [Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle] rocket cannot be used for such a mission as it does not have capacity, and GSLV Mk.2 has a limitation that it can take only two persons,” a scientist says. “GSLV Mk.3, which is under development, certainly can take three persons with some more space left.”

The government trimmed the budget allocation for the mission in India’s current financial year, which ends March 31, 2013, to 600 million rupees ($10 million) from 980 million in 2011. With no clear road map and considering the cost, India is also weighing its options for collaborating on human spaceflight, the scientist says.

“Continuous discussions on collaboration in manned space programs are under way globally, and we will decide on the right model at the right time,” he says.

Meanwhile, India is focusing on a mission to Mars. The federal government on Aug. 5 gave the go-ahead to launch a Mars orbiter in November 2013. India will be the sixth country to launch a mission to Mars after the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and China.

But former ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair suggests the country should concentrate more on qualifying the cryogenic engine for the GSLV and making the manned mission initiative move forward, rather than giving priority to the Mars mission.

GSLV photo: ISRO