With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, NASA is now turning to private companies to design and build new spacecraft to take astronauts into orbit. One of the most interesting concepts, the Dream Chaser, is now ready to start testing, and it is hoped that this will help usher in a new era of commercial human spaceflight.
The Dream Chaser is a reusable space plane developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). Appearance-wise, it resembles a mini version of the space shuttle, but modernized. The basic design of the craft can be traced back to NASA’s HL-20 lifting body design.
The first test vehicle arrived at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., last week. The testing procedure will include tests of the flight and runway landing systems. Like the shuttle, the Dream Chaser will launch on a rocket and land like an airplane.
According to William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington, “Unique public-private partnerships like the one between NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation are creating an industry capable of building the next generation of rockets and spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the scientific proving ground of low-Earth orbit. NASA centers around the country paved the way for 50 years of American human spaceflight, and they’re actively working with our partners to test innovative commercial space systems that will continue to ensure American leadership in exploration and discovery.”
Like some other private companies, Sierra Nevada is receiving funding from NASA for its testing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
The Dream Chaser can accommodate up to seven passengers, but is a lot smaller than the space shuttle, measuring about 9 metres (29.5 feet) long, compared to 37 metres (122 feet) long for the space shuttle.
NASA is hoping to be able to start using such commercial spacecraft to restart its own self-reliant astronaut program by 2017. Until that time, with no more shuttles, it has been relying on Russia to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.
However, contrary to some who now see a bleak future for human spaceflight, with companies like SNC now taking an active role, the next few years actually seem quite promising, at least in terms of getting American astronauts into orbit without having to rely on other countries. New missions to the Moon or Mars are still another matter, but hopefully this will be a big step in that direction as well.
This article was first published on Examiner.com
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