Almost five years after the iconic Space Shuttle was retired, NASA has announced it is funding a new space plane that is sure to evoke nostalgic thoughts of its predecessor.
The Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft is one of three unmanned vehicles developed by private companies that NASA has awarded cargo contracts to resupply the International Space Station from 2019 to 2024, as part of the CRS-2 (Commercial Resupply Services) program. The other two are SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus; both have already been resupplying the ISS as part of CRS-1.
“This is a big deal, because our commercial resupply missions enable NASA and our private industry and other government agency partners to continue the extensive, ongoing scientific research aboard the Space Station,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement.
Awarding the cargo contracts, which will total about $14 billion (£10 billion), will ensure the ISS has regular deliveries of supplies until at least 2024, when the station’s operations were extended to in 2014. All three of the companies will be given up to six missions.
SpaceX's Dragon became the first private vehicle to resupply the ISS in 2012. NASA/SpaceX
For SNC, this is a welcome reward for what has been a troubled period for the ambitious company. In 2014, the company was turned down for funding of its Dream Chaser as part of NASA’s manned program to begin taking astronauts to the ISS in 2017, with SpaceX and Boeing being preferred.
But the company came back with an unmanned version of Dream Chaser for this latest round of funding, and although the spacecraft will not be manned at first, these funds will be vital in perhaps one day making that a reality.
Dream Chaser works by launching on top of a rocket, possibly an Atlas V, with its wings in a folded position. The plane, which looks like a miniaturized Space Shuttle, then detaches from the rocket once in orbit and unfurls its wings, flying to the station with a cargo module in tow. It will be able to carry up to 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of cargo.
Once docked, it can deliver its array of cargo, but its biggest benefit is in its return capabilities. Currently, only SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is able to return cargo from the ISS. But at the moment, it has to splash down in the ocean using parachutes, with a prolonged recovery time. Dream Chaser, though, will be able to return cargo – such as time-critical experiments – to a runway within three hours.
So far it has never flown to space, with only development tests on the ground being conducted.
Check out a concept video of Dream Chaser in action above. SNC
Privatizing space travel to Earth orbit has been one of the key goals of Bolden’s administration, and this latest news is one step towards achieving that aim. “The second generation of commercial cargo services to low-Earth orbit begins today,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS Program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“By engaging American companies for cargo transportation, we can focus our attention on using this one-of-a-kind laboratory in the sky to continue advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”
And for NASA, it allows them to continue to shift their focus to deep space exploration, namely Mars, with the Orion capsule and Space Launch System rocket, as private companies take up the mantle of maintaining our presence in Earth orbit.