CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A mini version of the space shuttle is in the works after NASA added a third company to its list of private-sector suppliers.
Sierra Nevada Corp. will join SpaceX and Orbital ATK in launching cargo to the International Space Station. The flights will begin in 2019 and run through 2024.
Sierra Nevada competed for NASA’s commercial crew contract, but lost out in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing in a bid to ferry astronauts.
The Sparks, Nev.-based company is developing a scaled-down shuttle called Dream Chaser to haul cargo. The other companies use standard-shaped capsules.
The spacecraft will be able to land back on Earth, like the shuttle, and bring back science experiments and other items. So far, Dream Chaser has had one successful landing.
“The world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” said Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s space systems.
NASA’s space station program manager, Kirk Shireman, said he’s been assured that the Dream Chaser could touch down on lots of runways — in lots of places. The goal is to retrieve science samples as quickly as possible for analysis. A runway touchdown would be gentler than the ocean parachute drop used by SpaceX.
Only SpaceX can currently return goods. Other cargo ships, including Orbital’s Cygnus and Russia’s Progress, are filled with trash and burn up on re-entry.
Recent launch accidents by SpaceX and Orbital prompted NASA to pick a third vendor for increased flexibility.