India test-launches scaled-down space shuttle

NEW DELHI • India successfully launched a scale model of a reusable spacecraft yesterday, a project that in time could pit the nation against billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in the race to make access to space cheaper and easier.

The winged vessel - one-fifth of the full size - blasted off on a rocket from Sriharikota base on the southeastern coast, the Indian Space Research Organisation said.

The spacecraft was supposed to reach an altitude of 70km and glide back to Earth at supersonic speeds for a splashdown in the Bay of Bengal.

India put a probe into Mars orbit in 2014 for just US$74 million (S$102 million), demonstrating a combination of technological capability and low costs that chimes with the goal of more frequent space travel being championed by Mr Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Mr Bezos' Blue Origin.

Both companies seek to curb costs by making rockets reusable, and are conducting test launches more often.

"While India's effort is behind the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, there are still others further behind and all of the solutions remain to be proven, both technically and from a cost perspective," said Mr David Wireman, a Dallas-based managing director and aerospace specialist at consultancy AlixPartners.

"Although the technical hurdles are quite high, it's reasonable to believe India can be successful."

Asia's No. 3 economy plans to spend about 75 billion rupees (S$1.5 billion) on its entire space programme from now until March next year, a fraction of the yearly US$19 billion budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States.

The reusable space vehicle is supposed to provide a cost-effective and reliable option for operations such as launching satellites, according to the Indian space agency.

India could in future play a bigger role in the commercial satellite launch market.

The global satellite industry brought in US$203 billion in revenue in 2014, the latest year for which Satellite Industry Association data is available. Some US$5.9 billion of that came from launches.

"Space is no longer a domain that's dominated by the US and Europe," said Mr Ajey Lele, a New Delhi-based senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'India test-launches scaled-down space shuttle'. Print Edition | Subscribe