Thinking Tech

"Dream Chaser" is the latest hope for American spaceflight

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When NASA's space shuttle program completes its final mission later this year, the agency will need a new approach to getting astronauts into outer space.

Space exploration is about to become a real challenge. But how did it come to this?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an institution that not so long ago gave us a shot of interstellar euphoria when it transported mankind to the moon, is now mired in budget cuts and increasing criticism. The constellation program that was borne out of ex-president Bush's call for a return trip to the moon was nixed last year and there have been murmurs that the agency is suffering from a lack of direction.

In late 2009, Tom Wolfe, author of the space-exploration book The Right Stuff, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled "One Giant Leap to Nowhere," taking NASA to task for "killing time for 40 years with a series of orbital projects" that served no real purpose other than to "keep the lights on at the Kennedy Space Center and Houston’s Johnson Space Center."

And on Tuesday, the same publication published a sobering report on a host of financial problems and other inefficiencies that has forced NASA to end its space shuttle program later this year.

(For more, read my colleague John Hermann's analysis of the dilemmas at NASA here)

But despite all the apparent disarray, NASA is actively seeking ways to continue sending people into space, partly by turning to commercial industries.

Last year, the agency awarded 50 million dollars worth of grants to businesses that submitted technologically-sound proposals for vehicles capable of shuttling people and cargo from Earth to the International Space Station and back again. One company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, won the biggest prize (20 million dollars) for a promising concept aircraft that the company had originally announced back in 2004, the aptly named Dream Chaser.

The Dream Chaser's technology is based on the HL-20, a concept that NASA had been developing for some time before licensing it to SpaceDev, a wholly acquired subsidiary of SNC. Designed to launch from atop an Atlas 5 rocket, the seven-passenger aircraft may eventually serve as the main mode of transportation for American astronauts. Once the space shuttle program is shuttered, the only existing option involves having them hitch a ride in one of Russia's Soyuz capsules.

In an interview with the BBC, Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, talks about the Dream Chaser's potential as a space shuttle replacement:

"Not only can it take people back and forth, but the science experiments that are done at the ISS can come back in their racks in our vehicle, and instead of being subject to the very high g-forces of a capsule landing in the ocean or on the steppes of Kazakhstan - we land on a runway; we have less than 2g when we land. You can go right up to the vehicle when it stops, because we have no hazardous material onboard, and take those experiments straight off."

The concept aircraft's prospects got a boost last year when SNC partnered with Virgin Galactic to market it for space tourism and also use CEO Richard Branson's White Knight Two carrier aircraft to undergo drop tests. SNC hopes to launch the Dream Chaser into the heavens in four years' time.

But the hurdles that remain are significant. The 30 million dollar injection SNC received from NASA is already being used to develop the aircraft's hybrid rockets. And the company is planning another round of fund-raising later this year.

In Technology Review magazine, Sirangelo discusses some of the other obstacles in bringing the aircraft to market:

Turning a profit will require flying multiple Dream Chasers 50 to 100 times each, and Sirangelo admits that he doesn't know when that will occur. "We're entering an unknown world," he says. The company isn't disclosing exact figures, but Sierra Nevada, a profitable company founded in 1963, has invested tens of millions of dollars in the project—more than the company received from NASA this year. Sirangelo says Sierra Nevada plans to continue to invest its own money in the project.

"If we don't get to our milestones, we don't get paid," says Sirangelo.

In the meantime, check out this video simulation of the Dream Chaser grooving to some funky beats:

Photo: NASA

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure