Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on May 18, 2016
Next week, ISRO to test its dream reusable vehicle

On May 23, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is expected to flight test a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) — a dream project which would take at least one to two more decades to acquire operational status. The definite end product which ISRO is proposing is a reusable space shuttle for human travel to space and back. This flight test is going to be the first step in the direction of realising this dream.

The main aim of ISRO from this experiment is to test the re-entry capability of the RLV. The biggest barrier for any space shuttle in its journey to and back from space is its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. This is because ambient temperatures are extremely high at the edge of the atmosphere, to the tune of few thousands of degrees centigrade. Any incoming spacecraft would have to withstand such heat and travel safely trough this heat zone. Therefore, it is the test for the design and production of thermal coating and shape of the aircraft and that is what ISRO is proposing to test in the first RLV mission.

The size of the proposed RLV is very small, about one-sixth of the actual size. The beauty of any space shuttle lies in its peculiar character: it gets launched as a rocket, acts as a space-plane once it reaches the outer space and after finishing its task in space, it returns and lands on the earth as an aircraft. Presently, what ISRO is broadly proposing is to launch the vehicle to an altitude of 70 km by using a small rocket and test its capabilities as a space plane.

However, the vehicle would not be recovered by landing it on a runway as an aircraft but would be made to fall in the ocean. During this test, ISRO would be testing guidance and navigation techniques and would also be required to reduce the velocity (almost 10 times that of the original speed) of the craft significantly to make it reach the pre-designated location on the ocean. Apart from the human space travel, such vehicles could be used for launching of satellites too.

Till date, the US has been the only country to possess operational space shuttle technology. The US retired its space shuttle programme in 2011 after flying 135 times to space. This programme was the backbone for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Today, the US is depending on Russian vehicle Soyuz for this purpose.

China also carries its astronauts to space by using its own vehicle Shenzhou. Neither the Soyuz nor the Shenzhou are space shuttles, but only spherical re-entry capsules which lands on the earth at a predesignated location.

After the May 23 test, ISRO would be required to undertake a series of technology demonstration missions to develop the space shuttle. However, it would take many more years for ISRO to realise this dream. Now the question is if India should continue to reinvent the wheel or look for other options like international collaboration in the 21st century?

There is a need for India to expand the scope of this project — both the time and cost requirements for the development of RLV could be brought down significantly by engaging states and also the Indian private space industry that have the technological expertise.

Group Captain (Retd.) Ajey Lele is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. His areas of research include issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), space security and strategic technologies.

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