Spaceflight Insider

The making of India’s Space Shuttle: The inside story


India’s first test space shuttle, a scale model of the real one, was a team effort of hundreds of scientists over more than a half decade. Image Credit: ISRO

In an unassuming hangar near a fishing village in Kerala in southern India, the efforts of more than 600 scientists over the last five years have converged together to provide India with one of the nation’s most notable efforts in its space exploration efforts. It was there that India’s very own space shuttle, dubbed the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), was conceived and nurtured by the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO.

The project began more than a decade ago at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram – India’s main rocket designing and fabrication laboratory.

At 6.5 metres, this space shuttle is a scaled down replica of the final one, planned to be 40 metres. Caption and Photo Credit: NDTV

At 6.5 meters, this space shuttle is a scaled down replica of the final one, planned to be 40 meters. Caption and Photo Credit: NDTV

The 21-foot (6.5-meter) long scale model of the re-usable launch vehicle weighs about 1.75 metric tons and has been made at a cost of $14.6 million. Built as a technology demonstrator, ISRO plans to test two more such prototypes before the flying the final version, which will be about six times larger at around 131 feet (40 meters) long. If everything goes as planned, the first flight will take off around 2030.

Shyam Mohan, project director on the RLV, said his team has spent endless hours over the years trying to make sure that all systems work perfectly. Mohan, 53, who has spent three decades at ISRO, said he was chosen to design the RLV for India 15 years ago.

“It was a dream come true as making a re-usable launch vehicle is a complex and challenging task,” Mohan said.

The U.S. successfully flew their fleet of space shuttles 133 times until they were retired in 2011 over cost constraints, and the Russians flew their shuttle only once in 1989.

“These are just the first baby steps toward the big Hanuman leap,” said K Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

The RLV-TD was launched from Sriharikota on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh at 7 a.m. local time (01:30 GMT) on May 23, 2016.

The spacecraft was launched atop a nine-ton solid rocket motor that has been designed to burn slowly to accommodate the vertical lifting of a winged body.

After the launch, the Indian shuttle flew to an altitude of about 43 miles (70 kilometers) and then engaged in a free-gliding flight that started with an initial velocity five times that of sound. It then landed on a stretch of water in the Bay of Bengal some 311 miles (500 kilometers) from Sriharikota.

On this first flight, the RLV-TD was not recovered but the data collected will be used to improve the designs, paving the way for the final model.

This article was written by Pallava Bagla and first appeared on Space Safety Magazine

Video courtesy of NDTV


Space Safety Magazine (SSM) is a quarterly print magazine and a daily news website, jointly published by the International Association for Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) and the International Space Safety Foundation (ISSF). Space Safety Magazine is focused on safety related issues affecting space as well as safety on Earth from space events and objects. We regularly follows activities and threats in space debris and situational awareness, space weather and radiation impacts, nuclear safety, human spaceflight, launches, and reentries. SSM is highly international in nature, reporting on developments from around the globe, distributing content on multiple continents, and featuring an international staff.

Reader Comments

Clive Bashford

I think Reaction Engines should employ them to build Skylon.

Skylon, an interesting experiment but now overtaken by reality. There’s no possible business case for something as complex and costly. A good research project that may result in furthering our understanding of materials technology and fluid dynamics that may assist in spacecraft design and manufacture but as a space vehicle itself, highly unlikely.

I think there there are some pretty good arguments for downgrading Skylon to a suborbital stage. In that role, it should perform excellently. And no complicated engines or hassle with liquid hyrogen should be necessary. A pair of ramjets and a methane aerospike should be sufficient.

There’s a reason space vehicles don’t have wings etc.

Fortunately, this is not a space vehicle.

Clive Bashford

I can’t understand why this team is building a shuttle, which has no advantages except the dubious one of being able to land on a runway. Dragon will be able to land anywhere.
Skylon needs wings to take off and presumably for lift while its scooping air on the way up. They must have thought about using the Scimitar engine on a simple booster but decided it wouldn’t work.

There’s a very simple reason why you might want a winged first stage. Two of them, in fact. First, the initial phase of flight can take advantage of aerodynamic lift and air-breathing engines to get you to a significant altitude and velocity using less powerful propulsion, *and* simultaneously allowing for high-altitude nozzles to be used on the rocket engines, improving their efficiency without making them too complicated (such as by using ORSC/FFSC and so on). This lowers liftoff mass and plausibly also maintenance costs. Second, when the winged stage reenters atmosphere, it can turn around and fly back to the launch complex, again, using air-breathing propulsion with reasonable propellant use. This allows you to gently land it back and avoids both long distance oversize cargo transportation (if you intended to land back on land) or the need for a barge (if you intended to land on sea). From what I can tell, they don’t intend to have a winged *second* stage.

India started working on this a decade ago when there were no vertical reusable launchers so the main point is this if you want India to work on Vertical reusable launchers,it may take 5 to 10 years before they started work on those after understanding reusable crafts better.
There is always scope for improvement and since India is working from scratch because their is no NASA support as it is to Spacex.So it will take time.
Meanwhile sit back and enjoy how this baby shuttle experiment’s goes on till they reach culmination.

Good Experiment as it will help in understanding many practical components related to reusable space crafts.
although a long way to go but slow and steady wins the race.

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *