On paper, it was just a short test flight. But for India’s dreams of building an indigenous space shuttle, the narrow plume of smoke in the skies above Sriharikota was a big deal.
At 7 AM on May 23, a prototype of India’s Re-usable Launch Vehicle (RLV)—a reusable space shuttle designed to put satellites into orbit—blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, an island off the Bay of Bengal in southern India.
Within 20 minutes of lift off, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)—India’s equivalent of NASA—announced that the launch was successful. The 6.5 metre-long prototype of the RLV weighs about 1.75 tonnes and was built at a cost of Rs95 crore. The project has been in the works for about a decade, involving over 600 scientists.
“Mission has been accomplished and all the parameters and trajectories were fulfilled,” a spokesperson for ISRO told the Mint newspaper. “The liftoff was sharp at 7am and then the vehicle landed in the Bay of Bengal. This was the hypersonic flight experiment (HEX), the next test will be focussed on landing the vehicle.”
The test model was about six times smaller than the actual version, which is planned to be about 40-meters-long. ISRO plans to test two more prototypes in the coming years.
“Many such experiments will be carried out in the future, such as for the parachute system which will be put together eventually. We are looking at frugal engineering, developing advanced systems efficiently,” K Sivan, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre said. “The final reusable launch vehicle will not be ready for another decade.”
It’s a bit of a wait, but India’s shuttle programme is looking to slash the costs of space missions by about 10 times.
Currently, space shuttle programmes are run by a select few, including the European Space Agency, which launched a prototype in Feb. 2015 and entrepreneurs like SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
NASA, the pioneer of the space shuttle, discontinued its Space Transportation System programme in 2011 after four decades due to massive operational costs.