Dream Chaser 'Space Plane' Set For 2016 Test Launch; Could Put Astronauts Back In Space Before Boeing, SpaceX

By Ben Wolford on January 25, 2014 1:09 PM EST

An artist's conception of the Dream Chaser launch, set for November 2016 (Photo: Flickr/Dean Heald, CC BY-SA 2.0)
An artist's conception of the Dream Chaser launch, set for November 2016 (Photo: Flickr/Dean Heald, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sierra Nevada Corp, a leading developer of privately-owned spacecrafts, announced this week that it will test its Dream Chaser space plane on Nov. 1, 2016 — a milestone in the race to replace NASA's space shuttles. That date puts the company ahead of SpaceX and Boeing Co. in the race for a contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

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Mark N. Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada's space division, said the company is "thrilled to be the first company to confirm a launch date for our country's return to orbital human spaceflight and the restart of human spaceflight operations from Florida's Space Coast." Since NASA's shuttle program shut down in 2011, Cape Canaveral has been the site of unmanned launches to transport supplies but not people.

The Dream Chaser even looks like the shuttle, just smaller, and its style is based on a NASA design. The company says its "space plane" launches vertically, propelled by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and can carry up to seven people into low Earth orbit. It has its own propulsion system for ISS docking and lands just like a commercial airplane on a conventional runway.

The Dream Chaser is just one prototype spacecraft of three involved in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which is working with the companies to replace the shuttle for ISS missions. Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon both use a capsule design, like those used in early manned space flight. CST-100 is in testing, and Dragon has been to space, though without any of its manned flight capabilities. For now, the European space agency is responsible for carrying ISS crew members to and from Earth. Recently the U.S. government extended funding for the ISS by four years, through 2024. "A related critical function of ISS is testing the technologies and spacecraft systems necessary for humans to safely and productively operate in deep space," NASA administrators said at the time.

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