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NASA to host next-gen mini-shuttle

Sierra Nevada Corp.

In this artist's conception, Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser space plane is shown alongside a docking port at the International Space Station.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center signed a deal today to let Sierra Nevada Corp. use its facilities to develop and launch a mini-shuttle for servicing the International Space Station, beginning as early as 2015.

"This is a really great step toward a bright future for us," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the signing, which took place in the Florida space center's briefing room.

Previous deals have awarded Sierra Nevada $100 million in NASA funds to aid in the development of the company's Dream Chaser, a winged space plane that's based on a design considered but rejected by the space agency in the 1980s. The Dream Chaser would launch on an Atlas 5 rocket and carry as many as seven passengers and cargo to the space station.

Sierra Nevada is one of several companies funded by NASA's effort to promote the development of commercial spacecraft that could fill in for many of the functions of the shuttle fleet, which is headed for retirement after Atlantis' upcoming station resupply mission. The Dream Chaser is the only proposed spaceship that has wings. The others — such as SpaceX's Falcon, Boeing's CST-100 and Blue Origin's OSV — are conical capsules like the Apollo command module.

Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, noted that the Dream Chaser's look was similar to that of the shuttle, though without the shuttle's commodious cargo bay. When one journalist made a remark about the craft's sleek design, Sirangelo joked, "We like the word 'sleek.'"

He said the design similarities suggest that the reusable Dream Chaser, which would land on a runway like a glider, might well be serviced like the shuttle. But when Sirangelo was asked exactly which facilities would be used at Kennedy Space Center, he said "we're still working out the details" on that issue. NASA said the space center would help Sierra Nevada "define and execute" activities for launch and for post-landing processing.

Last week, NASA reported that all of its partners for crew vehicle development, including Sierra Nevada, were meeting their specified timelines. Sirangelo said Sierra Nevada's schedule called for suborbital test flights in 2013, orbital test flights in 2014 and the start of space station operations in 2015.

Kennedy Space Center's director, Bob Cabana, joined Sierra Nevada in signing today's Space Act agreement. He said the venture was in line with NASA's efforts to give private companies a greater role in low-Earth-orbit operations, thus freeing the space agency to concentrate on beyond-Earth-orbit exploration.

"We are going to transform human space flight for future generations," Cabana said.

Today's Space Act agreement isn't the first of its kind: Sierra Nevada previously reached agreements with Johnson Space Center in Texas, Langley Research Center in Virginia and Dryden Flight Research Center and Ames Research Center in California. Among the other companies that have made Space Act agreements under the auspices of NASA's Commercial Crew Program are Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.

"There are others in the works," Cabana told me after the signing.

Do you think such agreements point the way to the future of spaceflight? Or are you worried that private enterprise isn't up to taking a leading role on the final frontier, as some of the space effort's veterans fear? Either way, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 6 p.m. ET: Sierra Nevada's Sirangelo discussed the deal in more depth with me during an interview this afternoon. Among other things, he told me that the Dream Chaser could be launched atop an Atlas 5 from California as well as from Florida, and it could land on any runway. If it happened to land in California, or anyplace else, that's no big deal. "It returns home in a cargo plane," Sirangelo told me. The mini-shuttle is compact enough to fit within a C-5 transport plane, he noted.

He suggested that  the Dream Chaser could touch down in, say, Madison to deliver fresh experimental samples to a lab at the University of Wisconsin — or make a landing at the EAA AirVenture air show to give the crowds a thrill. A spaceship coming to your hometown ... how's that sound as a way to build interest in the space program?

Stay tuned for more from Sirangelo and other players in the commercial space race next week, once I transcribe my notes.

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