The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is pretty serious about building a credible space program. After already positioning themselves favorably in the competitive international launch business, they’ve already accomplished the remarkable feat of placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet — one of only a handful of nations to do so. Now they’re working towards reusable spaceflight, and also manned spaceflight by setting out on one of the holy grails of human spaceflight: the reusable orbital spaceplane that takes off and lands on a runway. No one has yet come particularly close; the Space Shuttle is by far the most successful spaceplane, but it launched as a two-stage rocket and was only partially reusable. Venturestar sought to become a single-stage-to-orbit fully reusable rocketplane, but was cancelled. X-37 is a fully reusable spaceplane, but cannot launch itself and requires an expendable booster to carry it to orbit. (Or the Space Shuttle. It was originally envisioned as fitting into a Shuttle’s payload bay.)
As the first major step on this rather long path, ISRO has built and launched a scale model spaceplane very similar in appearance to the X-37. Called the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator, it launched early today from Sriharikota’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre atop a solid-propellant ATV sounding rocket, an unusually heavy sounding rocket built by ISRO largely for projects such as this one. It accelerated the automonous spaceplane to at least Mach 5, reaching a maximum altitude of 65 km and a downrange distance of 450 km before making what was apparently a surprisingly well controlled bellyflop into the Bay of Bengal. (The test article was not intended to be recoverable, as it survival was considered dubious. But it will have recoverable successors.) It carried out tests of the heatshield technology, guidance, flight control, and navigation systems. It did not reach the Karman Line and thus is not a true spaceflight, but it was not intended to be; this is a subscale test to validate the basic design before proceeding to higher energies.