Joining the Club
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) just launched and recovered a tiny (7-meter/21-foot-long) prototype reusable spacecraft. The launch was set according to the "Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration" (RLV-TD) program.
Launched at 9 AM local time yesterday morning, the prototype shuttle soared 69.2 km (43 mi) into the sky, and then glided to a safe landing in the Bay of Bengal.
The RLV-TD was unmanned, and there won't be any piloted flights in the vehicle anytime soon. The test was strictly a proof-of-concept, a thorough shakedown of the technologies involved in constructing an actual, manned, fully functional reusable space vehicle.
But it underscores that India has serious space ambitions, and that they are determined to join that most exclusive of national clubs—those nations with spacefaring capabilities.
Into Space on a Shoestring Budget
Getting into space is a notoriously expensive business. Just ask Elon Musk. SpaceX, his company, has been enormously successful, but it required huge capital investment and outlay to get off the ground.
The same is true, to an even greater extent, with the national space agencies, which are expected to juggle objectives as diverse as planetary exploration, manned spaceflight, satellite operations, and even space station construction.
Which is why India's approach is so intriguing. The country has managed to achieve some very notable space achievements on what can only be described as a shoestring budget. The current shuttle prototype program, for example, is rumored to cost only $14 million; in 2014, ISRO put a satellite in orbit around Mars for only $72 million, a pittance when it comes to space exploration.
It's part of a smarter, thriftier approach to getting into space—an approach that eschews reinventing the wheel and, instead, leverages the accumulated research and experience of other space agencies, such as NASA and Roscosmos.
ISRO culls through the data published by these other agencies, identifying errors and missteps and building on the pioneering research of other countries to pave its way into space.