LOS ANGELES - When Mark Sirangelo talks about space travel, he has a big smile that won't fade. He has every reason to be optimistic. After all, he's building a vehicle that may soon transport seven passengers into space.
It's called Dream Chaser. And the timing is perfect, given that NASA's 30-year space shuttle program has come to an end.
The Dream Chaser space plane is being built from the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA.
This week at the Compass Summit in Los Angeles, Sirangelo tells me about what a ride on The Dream Chaser would be like: It will take a day or two to get to the ISS; the vehicle will stay docked to the station for a few days; and then it will bring people back home.
It's fast. The vehicle can travel the Earth every 90 minutes, which means passengers get 18 sunrises and sunsets a day.
While it was originally meant to be a lifeboat for the NASA space shuttle, Sierra Nevada Space System is taking those paper plans and turning the Dream Chaser into a real vehicle. Built to transport astronauts to and from the ISS, the Dream Chaser may soon become the space shuttle's replacement.
Currently, NASA depends on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station and must shell out $63 million per seat. The investment from the NASA program is a move to give transportation to the ISS to private space companies by 2016.
Earlier this month, Sierra Nevada Space Systems announced that it received $25.6 million by NASA, as part of the Commercial Crew Development Program. Along with the recent $25.6 million in funding, NASA already pumped $80 million into Sierra Nevada Space Systems. SpaceX, Boeing's CST-100, and Blue Origin's spacecraft are also part of the CCDev2 program.
"Beyond going to the space station, we see it as a science platform. People who want to do work in zero-gravity will have the ability to do that," Sirangelo said. "We see the vehicle being used as a way of servicing satellites - satellites that are broken or that need to be moved so they don't cause problems in the future in terms of space debris. We see at some point, it being a dedicated vehicle used by space tourists."
Wait a minute. Did Sirangelo say tourists?
Sign me up! It may be possible someday, to see the Earth from afar, but the most immediate call to action for the Dream Chaser is to shuttle people back-and-forth from the ISS.
Testing for the Dream Chaser is expected to being next summer. It will either launch at Edwards Air Force Base in California or White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The Dream Chaser will ride Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo for the test launch.
Sirangelo, and others like SpaceX's co-founder Elon Musk, are among the first to tap into the expanding private space market - which continues to grow from NASA outsourcing its billion-dollar ISS missions and the promise of one day sending tourists into space.
"This is like the time when the Internet started taking off. Ten years ago, the first iPod was done. How much has that changed music? In some ways, I think what we are doing will have a similar effect. People will see space as a tool, as an experience, as a portal to do something else," Sirangelo said, who is a licensed pilot.
In the future, "people and businesses may use it in ways we can't even realize right now."