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Success! India’s Mini Space Shuttle Makes First Test Flight
published during a waning gibbous moon.
05/23/2016

 

India's Mini Space Shuttle

RLV-TD being transported. Credit: ISRO

India has a baby bird, and on Monday at 7 am local time, they successfully pushed it out of the nest. This feat allowed India to join the handful of countries with a homegrown space shuttle.

India's Mini Space Shuttle

Flight profile of the ISRO’s RLV-TD. Credit: ISRO

Only about a dozen countries can launch things into orbit. When it comes to human spaceflight, the list slims down to a scant three: the United States, Russia, and China. To date, only the U.S. and Russia have built their own shuttles, while the European Space Agency and Japan have tested prototypes. Countries often collaborate to offset astronomical costs that come with precision-based missions and a space shuttle price tag is no exception. NASA’s space shuttle Endeavor, for instance, cost about $1.7 billion.

But rather than collaborate with other agencies to meet the high costs, India’s engineers significantly lowered the price tag altogether by designing a space shuttle with reusable rocket technology. Currently, it costs $10,000 to put one pound— just one pound! — of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA. But the Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) promises to bring that number down to about $2,000 per kilogram. (A kilogram is about 2 pounds, for reference.)

Cheaper space travel has recently emerged as a race for global agencies. NASA is developing technology that mimics airline operations, including horizontal takeoffs and landings — and lowering that payload tag to $100 a pound in the next decade. Currently, once a rocket completes its first stage, it’s discarded. But SpaceX recently made a historic first when its Falcon 9 touched back down on a floating platform. Though it’s not the ultimate goal of billionaire Elon Musk’s company, who has his eyes set on Mars, reusability is a bonus — and his ambitions have arguably sparked a less-than-subtle contest for fresh cosmic firsts.

India's Mini Space Shuttle

RLV-TD Lift off. Credit: ISRO

The RLV-TD wasn’t recovered from the sea after its flight, but the ISRO didn’t build it to last. The experimental craft tested its high-velocity descent on a runway in the Bay of Bengal to prepare for the final version of the shuttle, which will be six times its size.