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Patrick Healy, Tommy Bravo
The "Dream Chaser" spacecraft is designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in NASA's post-shuttle era. The "next generation" spacecraft is smaller, less complex and easier to operate. Patrick Healy reports from Edwards Air Force Base for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on May 22, 2013.
Awaiting testing in a hangar at the edge of the Mojave Desert, it looks almost like a mini Space Shuttle--a bit curvier and organic-looking, but with stubby, angled winglets. It's called the Dream Chaser, and it's intended to re-invent the way America sends astronauts into orbit.
"We think it's the right answer for our nation," said Steve Lindsey, a former space shuttle astronaut who now runs Dream Chaser operations for the Sierra Nevada Corporation which built it.
For three decades, the shuttle fleet was responsible for delivering America's astronauts into space. Since the last of the shuttles was retired two years ago, Americans bound for the space station have to book passage on a Russian Soyuz.
The Dream Chaser lacks the cargo capacity of the much larger space shuttles, but is "less complex, easier to operate, easier to turn around, and--we think--ultimately safer," Lindsey said.
Two of the shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, failed disastrously during missions, claiming 14 lives. After each disaster, safety improvements were developed and implemented, but shuttle operations proved far more expensive than originally anticipated, and in later years cost NASA $2
billion a year in maintenance, according to Administrator Charles Bolden.
In the post-shuttle era, NASA envisions contracting with commercial aerospace firms to provide more economical low orbital transportation services.
As Bolden sees it, these new spacecraft would not be comparable to the Space Shuttle, but would fulfill some of its roles.
Hawthorne-based SpaceX has already carried out two unmanned cargo delivery missions to the space station.
SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., and aerospace giant Boeing are now competing for contracts with NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
All plan booster rocket launches. For the crew ship, Boeing and SpaceX are using capsules. The Dream Chaser has a "lifting body" designed to land as a glider on a runway, as did the shuttles.
In terms of name recognition with the general public, Lindsey acknowledges his company may have some ground to make up, and wants to set the record straight that Sierra Nevada Corp. has nothing to do with the brewer of the well-known pale ale, he said, tongue in cheek.
Last year, NASA awarded the three companies a total of more than a billion dollars to assist in development costs.
The companies are in competition for the primary service contract. Bolden said NASA hopes to sign a secondary contractor as well, so it has a back-up.
The first commercial crew contract could be signed as early as next year, Bolden said. But target date for the first launch has already been moved back from 2015 to 2017, due to funding issues.
In the current economic climate, Congress has been reluctant to fully fund all of NASA's programs, which also include the development of a new Space Launch System to carry a new Orion capsule deeper into space for exploration.
So-called sequestration budget cuts have added to the federal financial squeeze.
"We have got to get Commercial Crew funded, or we're going to be paying the Russians forever," lamented Bolden.
"We're obviously concerned," said Sierra Nevada's Lindsey. "As long as the money's not there, the schedules will slip. That's just how it is."
Dream Chaser's builders -- and NASA -- hope successful testing will make an impression on Capitol Hill.
The testing at Dryden will begin on the ground. Within months, Lindsey envisions landing tests, using a Skycrane helicopter to lift the Dream Chaser to 12,000 feet and then releasing it to glide back to earth.
With all the testing at subsonic speeds at this stage, there is no need to equip the outer skin of the Dream Chaser brought to Dryden with the expensive heat-shielding tiles and blankets needed to re-enter Earth's atmosphere from space.
Instead, the ship is clad in foam of carefully measured thickness so the Dream Chaser has the same shape and volume, and therefore the same aerodynamic properties, Lindsey explained.
The occasion of Dream Chaser's arrival for testing was important enough to NASA that the Administrator traveled to the Dryden hanger to speak at a media briefing.
Some have suggested NASA could get by without the Commercial Crew Program by adapting the Space Launch System and Orion capsule under development. Bolden said that could be done in an emergency situation, but otherwise would be inefficient. As Bolden sees it, vehicles designed specifically for low earth orbit duty would be better suited to providing service to the space station.
Bolden said he worries that if Commercial Crew is not funded, it could even affect manned exploration programs in the future.
Research in low orbit and at the space station is essential to developing the wherewithal for manned exploratory missions beyond the moon, according to Bolden.
"Without Commercial Crew," Bolden said. "We probably won't have exploration."