India challenges NASA and SpaceX with its own reusable mini space shuttle

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India launched a prototype of a reusable shuttle early Monday morning called the RLV-TD, and that has some big implications for the likes of NASA and private enterprises like Blue Origin and SpaceX.

“The dynamism and dedication with which our scientists and ISRO,” which stands for the Indian Space Research Organisation, “have worked over the years is exceptional and very inspiring,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter. “[The] launch of India’s first indigenous space shuttle RLV-TD is the result of the industrious efforts of our scientists. Congrats to them.”

The launch took place from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, flying a 7-meter-sized model about 70 km (43 miles) into the atmosphere before it splashed down into the Bay of Bengal. It only took 10 minutes from liftoff to splashdown. One report by Zee News suggested the launch cost about INR 95 million, which would be astonishingly cheap at about $1.4 million.

What is significant about India’s bid to replace the Space Shuttle (NASA ended its shuttle program in 2011 and other countries are competing to build an alternative) is it might be the only economical option offered by a national government. Stellar startups like SpaceX and Blue Origin are proving costs can be cut by relying on private companies motivated by making a profit, but India has a track record for getting the R&D, manufacturing, and launch of space vessels done at similar costs.

“We are designing for the first time a winged body which will come back from space,” ISRO Chairman Kiran Kumar said early Monday. “Ultimately, the objective will be this winged body will come and land on the Sriharikota island.”

India put a satellite into orbit around Mars, the Mangalyaan mission, in 2014 for just $74 million. That’s a bit more than the $60 million going rate for a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, costs recouped by customers paying to ferry their satellites into space. For a mini-shuttle, that would be a big deal.

"Mini-shuttle."
“Mini-shuttle.”

If India can apply the same principles here, then it demonstrates the viability of a cost-effective space program and could theoretically keep government in the new space economy. This is not to imply that governments are bowing out any time soon: NASA gets about $20 billion a year from the U.S. Congress for its programs, with some congressmen enthusiastic about long-term Mars missions and even landers going to places like the icy moons of Jupiter.

That “mini” element is what keeps costs down. That $74 million mission compares with a $671 million NASA mission called Maven.

“They’ve kept it small. The payload weighs only about 15kg,” British professor Andrew Coates, who will work on Europe’s Mars rover, told the BBC in 2014. He said that what the Mangalyaan lacked in complex instruments were made up for in its efficient focus on specific topics of study or complementing current research by other space missions. “Compare that with the complexity in the payload in Maven and that will explain a lot about the cost.”

Valles Marineris from Mars Colour Camera (MCC) onboard India’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft
Valles Marineris from Mars Colour Camera (MCC) onboard India’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft

The last important piece of this returns questions about plane-like space cruisers back to the discussion of human-driven vehicles in space. SpaceX and Blue Origin are currently working on reusing rockets and sticking vertical landings. Yet it is other companies like XCOR that are pushing for plane-like shuttles to continue use, which many argue allow more precise landings. Their proposal, the Lynx spaceplane, is a rocket-powered reusable “batplane” which has already scraped together $20 million in private funding from the likes of the Space Angels Network.

Time will tell if India can get their version working in space on a worthwhile timetable. There aren’t many close to ISRO right now on this, so they might be a safe bet.

1 COMMENT

  1. Another spaceplane? Unneeded weight with those wings (all for the supposed benefit of landing on a runway). An overly large unprotected heat shield increases the chances of a reentry failure tenfold. Capsules are more energy and space efficient, and much safer.

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