India just test launched their first reusable space vehicle, the Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). The RLV-TD is much smaller than the old orbiters that NASA used to use, which came in at 122 feet in length. India’s vehicle is only 22 feet long, which makes it a lot easier to get into orbit, and a lot cheaper. The total cost was $14 million, as opposed to the $1 billion a single orbiter like Endeavor cost.
Technology has advanced a lot since the beginning of NASA’s space shuttle program, and even since NASA ended that program, and that helps make things cheaper. But the scale of difference between the two costs is massive, and will give India the opportunity to experiment quite a bit more. That’ll have to wait though, as this was only the first, unmanned test flight, but it was even more successful than expected. The shuttle was successfully navigated to a safe landing, despite expectations that it would not survive the landing. The total flight only lasted 770 seconds, almost 13 minutes.
Not only is this a big deal for India and the Indian Space Research Organisation, but it’s a big deal for space exploration overall. Reusable spacecraft are a big deal, with Space X and other companies working to develop efficient, safe, and reusable methods of moving goods and people to space, and eventually to other bodies in space. It’s not a particularly outrageous goal these days, with Space X working on an unmanned flight to Mars. One of the big hurdles to reusable spacecraft is keeping the cost down, as they generally require more investment to get them working, but over time will save money because we won’t need a new craft for every mission. India has shown us that it’s possible to make reusable craft for quite cheap.