India’s Space Agency Just Launched a Mini Space Shuttle

One small step towards a cheaper space program

indian spacecraft
An artist's rendering of the Indian Space Research Organization's prototype Reusable Launch Vehicle. ISRO

Just a few hours ago, India's space program launched a rocket carrying a small, unmanned model shuttle into space. The experimental prototype spacecraft successfully made it to an altitude of 43 miles before dropping back towards the Earth. Now, Indian engineers hope the data gathered during the brief flight will be a big step toward developing a low-cost, reusable space shuttle for the nation’s burgeoning space agency.

The spacecraft was just 23 feet long—about a sixth of the size engineers have planned for the final version. But despite its tiny size, the unmanned prototype’s successful launch represents the culmination of a decade of research and development by India's scientists as the country hopes to get a foothold in the race to develop new modes of space travel, Amar Toor reports for The Verge.

“The cost of access to space is the major deterrent in space exploration and space utilization,” the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) wrote in a statement. “A reusable launch vehicle is the unanimous solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on-demand space access.”

So far, only a handful of space agencies have successfully launched manned vehicles into space: NASA, Roscosmos of Russia, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency. Since NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, many astronauts have relied on Roscosmos’ spacecraft to travel to and from the International Space Station while other countries and private companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX race to develop new methods for spaceflight. Now, ISRO is trying to show that it can compete alongside them, the BBC reports.

India’s space program has had a good track record when it comes to developing cost-effective spacecraft. In 2014, it became the first Asian country to successfully launch a spacecraft into Mars orbit, doing so for about $73 million – a tenth of what NASA and the ESA have spent on their own Mars spacecraft, Tarek Bazley reports for Al Jazeera. It is also the first country to send a working spacecraft to the Red Planet on its first try.

The prototype shuttle, called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD), cost about $14 million and is intended to provide important data on navigation systems and how the craft and materials used will handle hypersonic speeds and atmospheric re-entry.

They do not, however, expect the little craft to survive its maiden voyage, Toor writes. "The wings are very small, so it’s still going to be a very huge challenge to land it on a runway and therefore we are landing it straight back on the ocean," Rajeswari Rajagopalan, head of the Observer Research Foundation’s Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, which collaborated on the RLV-TD, tells Bazley.

The ISRO says it is still at least 15 years away away from taking what it has learned from the RLV-TD and creating a fully-functional space shuttle. However, the space program hopes that the data gleaned from today’s success will help India become a competitor in the new space race, the BBC reports.

"There is a flourishing space program under the Chinese military leadership and that is a direct challenge for India, which India has to respond to, otherwise we are going to be left lagging behind," Rajagopalan tells Bazley.

ISRO plans on continuing tests on the technology used to build the prototype spacecraft, namely the engines that the space agency hopes to use to one day power its own space shuttles.

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