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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

America's Space Shuttle: 135 flights, 1 page [& India's own Shuttle program thrown in for good measure]

As the Space Shuttle Atlantis glided back & landed safely on Earth, it also brought down the curtains on NASA's three decade long flight of its Space Shuttles & its Space Shuttle program.
Since then a good number of articles have been written about the Space Shuttle program and its contribution towards advancing the cause of Space travel & research. Indeed, watching a shuttle launch every time on CNN, along with PSLV & GSLV launches, evoked an unparalleled feeling of excitement & exhilaration, besides providing that much needed inspiration.
This neatly compiled, interactive infographic prepared by the New York Times lists out all missions undertaken by each Shuttle, color-coding them to indicate the mission it was undertaking & highlighting important milestones achieved in the mission. The relative height of the marker indicate duration of the mission. Hover your mouse over a mission to view additional info & snapshot from the mission.

Click on the thumbnail to view the interactive inforgraphic.
Update: had earlier embedded the page itself inside the post using iframe. Turns out, NYT frowns upon such a thing. So had to change it to the thumbnail.
The Russians too had its own Space Shuttle program & had built a Shuttle of its own, the Buran, that undertook 1 unmanned space flight before the programme had to be cancelled. In fact, a new aircraft, the An-225, had to be constructed simply to transport the Buran between locations in a piggyback manner. The An-225 is the world's largest aircraft currently in operation & the heaviest ever built.
Click on the picture to view larger-sized image
Wind Tunnel model of India's Space Shuttle (Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator [RLV-TD])
The Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO] has also undertaken a programme to develop India's own reusable platforms [Indian Space Shuttle] for deploying Satellites into orbit - a Two Stage To Orbit vehicle [TSTO], Avatar scheduled to begin operation from 2020 & a Single Stage To Orbit [SSTO] vehicle has been targeted to be ready for operation around 2025.
As part of the process towards developing India's Space Shuttle-equivalent, ISRO is in the process of building a Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator [RLV-TD]. The Technology Demonstrator is to be used to validate & prove technologies & features that would then be incorporated into the Space Shuttles India is to build & operate subsequently. Significant technologies to be validated would include an Air-breathing propulsion system at Hypersonic Speeds [Scramjet Engine] & Autonomous Landing System, something that was only later incorporated into the American Space Shuttles, while the Buran had in it from the beginning. The RLV-TD is scheduled to make its maiden flight in 2016 [though some sources have also been quoting much earlier dates, like 2011 itself - will rectify if 2016 turns out to be wrong].
Click on the picture to view a larger-sized image
Layout diagram of India's Space Shuttle - Two Stage To Orbit [TSTO] Satellite Launch Vehicle, Avatar Air-breathing propulsion [Scramjet engine] of India's Space Shuttle [Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) Vehicle, Avatar]
Flight path of India's Space Shuttle [Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) Vehicle, Avatar]
To test the integrity of the heat shields that are to be used in these Space Vehicles as also on the module to be used in India's manned Space mission, ISRO conducted the Space capsule Recovery Experiment [SRE], where a capsule was placed into orbit in space & was brought back 12 days later into the Earth's atmosphere after which it made a splash landing in the Bay of Bengal. The experiment is said to be a success as the tiles were reported to have survived the intense heat developed due to friction generated during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Click on the picture to view a larger-sized image
India Space Shuttle Space Capsule Recovery Experiment [SRE] India's Space Shuttle program - Space Capsule Recovery Experiment [SRE]
Considering that virtually no component of a current Space Launch Vehicle India uses can be reused, one has to build an all-new Launch Vehicle for each launch. Thus a system that can be reused for the same over and over again should bring about significant cost advantages. Couple that with the ability to carry the heavy communication satellites, and India has a world-beating platform at hand to challenge the established Satellite Launch companies elsewhere, but that is a lot further away in the future - tend to get carried away extrapolating things :-).
India's Space Shuttle - Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator [RLV-TD]
A successful unmanned program, should lead to human-rating the TSTO & SSTO for future manned mission - unrestrained speculating, me indulging in. What is of paramount importance, at the moment, however, is the successful completion of the Technology Demonstrator phase of India's Reusable Launch Vehicle program.