Sierra Nevada Corp. has made a deal to put its Dream Chaser space plane into orbit for the first time in 2016 for an autonomous test run — and send test pilots to the International Space Station a year later if all goes well.
The deal with United Launch Alliance reserves an Atlas 5 rocket for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 1, 2016, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems.
Sierra Nevada is "thrilled to be the first company to confirm a launch date for our country's return to orbital human spaceflight," Sirangelo said during a Thursday news conference at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Space taxis under development
NASA is providing more than a billion dollars to three companies — Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and the Boeing Co. — to develop space taxis for transporting astronauts to and from the space station, starting as early as 2017. The commercial arrangement is meant to fill a gap created by the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. Currently, NASA has to buy rides from the Russians at a cost of more than $70 million per seat.
By September, NASA is expected to decide which companies will get more money to finish work on their space taxis and demonstrate them in orbit.
Sirangelo said Sierra Nevada's reservation for the Atlas 5 launch wasn't contingent on winning more money from NASA. "We have made a commitment to the launch," Sirangelo told NBC News. However, he declined to discuss the financial details. Michael Gass, ULA's president and CEO, characterized the arrangement as a reservation for launch.
Mini-shuttle being tested
The Dream Chaser is a reusable mini-shuttle, based on a NASA concept that was drawn up in the 1980s. It's designed to be launched into orbit on an Atlas 5 and glide down from orbit to a runway landing. The craft could carry cargo or up to seven passengers.
A prototype plane had its first free-flying glide test last October, and even though it skidded off the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California, NASA and Sierra Nevada determined that the plane met all of its required milestones. Another autonomous test flight is planned this year. Atmospheric flight tests with actual crews would begin next year, said Steve Lindsey, a former NASA astronaut who is now Sierra Nevada's program manager for the Dream Chaser.
"We have a lot more testing to go," Lindsey said.
Where and when
Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser would undergo processing before and after the 2016 flight at Kennedy Space Center's Operations and Checkout facility, also known as the O&C. During the autonomous flight, the space plane would make several orbits but not attempt a rendezvous with the space station, Lindsey said. The test would end with a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
The schedule calls for having two test pilots aboard the Dream Chaser for the follow-up launch in 2017. That mission would rendezvous with the space station, and head for a landing at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. If Sierra Nevada wins NASA's nod for orbital transport, the Dream Chaser would continue with launches and landings from Florida.
Sierra Nevada is also working with the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center to advance development of the Dream Chaser and look into whether its technologies can be applied to missions other than trips to and from the International Space Station.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.