Bengaluru, May 25: The news of India’s launch of a Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) has been blown out of proportion by the media, according to a report in “Space Review,” an online journal from Washington devoted to analysing key space issues and events across the world.
On May 23, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the RLV-TD, a winged vehicle almost resembling an aircraft, to an altitude of 65 km and navigated it to descend and land at a pre-determined spot in the sea.
The successful test was viewed as demonstrating India’s space technology prowess and joining an elite club of space-faring nations like the US, Russia and France.
The sleek 1.7-tonne RLV was latched on top of a 15-tonne rocket with a booster for lift-off from the spaceport in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, about 80km north of Chennai, off the Bay of Bengal coast.
The vehicle was tracked during its flight from ground stations at Sriharikota and a ship-borne terminal.
President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Indian scientists.
Mukherjee, in a message, said: “Heartiest congratulations to ISRO Team on successful launch of India’s first indigenous space shuttle RLV-T.”
Modi said in a tweet: “The dynamism and dedication with which our scientists and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) have worked over the years is exceptional and very inspiring.”
But the Space Review report by Wing Commander Kiran Nair of the Centre for Airpower Studies in New Delhi says that while ISRO officials had themselves described the launch as a “demonstration” and a “baby step” toward building a reusable launcher, the media went overboard and called the vehicle “India’s own Space Shuttle” and the test flight a “Hanuman Leap.”
Comparing the RLV-TD with the US space shuttle “is totally out of place”, the report says.
“While the country is justifiably proud about the test flight, elevating it to the same level as the Shuttle is premature and inappropriate. Space Shuttle was a fully operational vehicle. The RLV-TD is only a test vehicle.”
Many other huge differences exist between the two, and thus it’s essential to perceive the RLV in light of its own competencies and unique Indian purpose, rather than draw unfair comparisons with the Space Shuttle, it says.
“Simply put, the test launch does not herald the addition of an Indian Space Shuttle to ISRO’s inventory straightaway. It only marks the beginning of a technically challenging endeavor.”
The report cautions that one should temper hype with reality “as premature jubilation carries the hazard of raising expectations unreasonably”.
The report has also raised questions about the affordability of a Space Shuttle for a country like India, considering the huge investment required.
It says the US spent an estimated $192 billion on the shuttle programme from 1971 to 2010. “The average cost per launch works out to $1.2 billion, which is as much as the total annual Indian space budget. It is a costly experiment that India can ill-afford.”
An Indian missile scientist who did not want to be named, agreed.
“Massive funds amounting to billions of dollars will be needed by ISRO for RLV,” the scientist told this correspondent. “Once the RLV programme gets support, the clash for funds within ISRO will begin with other projects in ISRO competing for money,” he said.
“The first test flight of RLV-TD validated ISRO’s aerodynamics engineering and their guidance and control expertise but, beyond that, nothing can be correctly inferred about the value of this launch.”
According to ISRO, an RLV will reduce the cost of launching satellites to one-tenth. The Space Review report says differently.
“Despite its numerous achievements, like launching satellites and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, the feeling among NASA officials and space experts was that the US Shuttle failed to lower the cost of access to space,” the report says.
“An analysis showed that the incremental per-pound launch costs turned to be higher than those of regular expendable rockets.”
Space planes have not met with much success elsewhere either, the report says.
Europe’s Hermes space plane was approved in 1987 but cancelled in 1992 due to funding problems and Japan scrapped its HOPE-X shuttle in 2003, mainly due to financial reasons. The Soviet Union’s Buran programme — started in 1974 in response to the US Space Shuttle programme — was cancelled in 1993 after just one unmanned orbital spaceflight in 1988.
India has no space station and hence the requirement of a human-certified aerospace plane is some time away. But the RLV certainly has enormous uses to plug gaps in Earth observation and communications, says the report.
“Overall,” the report says, “disassociating expectations from the Space Shuttle and viewing the RLV in a uniquely Indian context makes more sense.”
US-based billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have recently conducted similar test launches.
SpaceX tested its Falcon 9 rocket in December while Blue Origin’s New Shepard completed a third launch and vertical landing in April.
NASA, however, grounded its space shuttle programme in 2011 after using its reusable vehicles like Discovery, Endeavor, Columbia and Challenger as a space transportation system for over three decades since 1981 to launch various missions, including International Space Station (ISS) and Hubble telescope.
Shalini Singh with K.S.Jayaraman