Mini Shuttle Launched: India Blasts Off In New Space Race

India successfully launched a mini shuttle on Monday, solidifying the Indian Space Research Organization’s position as a fierce competitor in the new space race. With the United States no longer in the reusable spacecraft business, the successful launch of India’s mini shuttle could eventually pit the country’s space program against private sector competitors like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

The mini shuttle launched from India’s Sriharikota base, according to a release from ISRO. The successful launch sent the prototype to an altitude of about 40 miles before gliding back to earth. The mini shuttle splashed down into the Bay of Bengal about 13 minutes after the initial launch.

The launch was essentially a test bed for ISRO’s Reusable Launch Vehicle, which is still on the drawing board. The mini shuttle is a one-fifth scale model of the RLV, so it measures just 23 feet in length. The winged design is superficially similar to NASA’s scrapped Space Transportation System, and while this launch resulted in a water landing, the RLV will ultimately utilize a rocket-powered vertical launch and plane-like horizontal landing.

Rajeswari Rajagopalan, head of the Observer Research Foundation’s Nuclear Space Policy Initiative that worked with ISRO on the design of the RLV, told Al Jazeera that the water landing was necessitated by limitations caused by the small size of the mini shuttle. He also suggested that India’s sudden push to field a reusable space shuttle was spurred, in part, by concerns about the Chinese space program.

“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,” Rajagopalan told Al Jazeera. “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.”

india launched mini shuttle
India's mini shuttle didn't reach orbit, or even the edge of space, and it was also too small to land horizontally. [Photo via ISRO]

While the mini shuttle launch was successful, the Indian Space Research Organization still has a long way to go before it catches SpaceX or Blue Origin in terms of providing an economically feasible reusable spacecraft. According to Bloomberg, India is still about eight years away from launching a full-scale version of the RLV.

Neither SpaceX nor Blue Origin are currently working with shuttle-type spacecraft, but both companies have already had their own successes in the new space race. Blue Origin has repeatedly launched, landed, and relaunched the same rocket, and SpaceX has provided launch services for NASA.

Unlike Blue Origin’s New Shepherd and SpaceX’s Dragon, India’s mini shuttle has yet to actually reach space. This first test launch only reached an altitude of 40 miles, which is short of even the loosest definition of the edge of space. New Shephard is a suborbital rocket that has reached the Karman line at the altitude of 62 miles, while SpaceX’s Dragon has actually docked with the International Space Station.

“While India’s effort is behind the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, there are still others further behind and all of the solutions remain to be proven, both technically and from a cost perspective,” David Wireman, aerospace specialist with consultancy AlixPartners LLP, told Bloomberg. “Although the technical hurdles are quite high, it’s reasonable to believe India can be successful.”

india mini shuttle
The successful launch of India's mini shuttle is an important step toward a reusable manned spacecraft. [Photo via ISRO]

India’s attempts to field a reusable spacecraft may lag behind private sector competitors like Musk and Bezos, but ISRO has already shown competency in launching rockets and managed to put a probe in Mars’ orbit in 2014 for a relatively cheap price tag of $74 million. By comparison, Popular Science reports that NASA’s Curiosity program cost in the neighborhood of $2.6 billion. NASA actually landed a rover, while India only orbited a probe, but the price differential is still remarkable.

The combination of lower costs and the successful launch of their mini shuttle shows how India could eventually make inroads into the $5.9 billion satellite launching industry.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that the mini shuttle cost just $14 million, but the full-scale version of the RLV will cost significantly more. ISRO also has to iron out some difficulties, including how to land their shuttle horizontally rather than recovering it via splashdown, before they go full scale.

Do you think that India will remain competitive in the new space race, or is the RLV mini shuttle too far behind everyone else to come out ahead?

[Photo via ISRO]