Sierra Nevada, the maker of the Dream Chaser shuttle, says its craft is almost ready for a vital test to determine whether it's one step closer to sending humans into orbit.
The 2011 closure of NASA's space shuttle program triggered the end of an era. But it also became the inception of an exciting new period in space innovation where private companies — receiving some NASA funding — would have the ability to develop their own spacecraft and shoot them into orbit.
In the time since, companies like Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada haven’t waited for other pioneers to take the first leap into private space travel. They're all currently engineering different model crafts with the ultimate goal of launching manned flights.
Wednesday, officials from Sierra Nevada announced that the corporation has built a space plane named "Dream Chaser" that could be ready to fly test missions in the next six to eight weeks, Space.com reports.
Unlike SpaceX and Boeing, who are developing space capsules, Sierra Nevada, with its Dream Chaser model, has constructed a miniature space shuttle that comes in at around 29 feet in length with a 23-foot wingspan. By comparison, NASA's now retired space shuttle was 122 feet long with a wingspan of 78 feet.
In the coming months, Sierra Nevada will be taking baby steps with Dream Chaser.
First up, the craft will be carried by a heavy-duty helicopter up to 12,000 feet and be expected to fly back on its own and land on a NASA runway. This process is a progression of a captive-carry test the Dream Chaser passed last year when it was held afloat by a similar helicopter.
"The first flight test is just to make sure it will fly, everything works properly, we land on the runway safely," Sierra Nevada's Jim Voss, head of the Dream Chaser program and a former space shuttle astronaut told Space.com.
"We'll put in maneuvers on the following tests that will gather the coefficients that we need to properly define the aerodynamic characteristics of the vehicle."
Voss said that if the Dream Chaser's upcoming test flight is successful, it would be followed by further launches involving similar aircrafts with human test pilots. Those vehicles, also Dream Chaser models, would then be used to display the design's aptitude in orbit. For Sierra Nevada, the end goal is to produce contracted, crew-carrying voyages.
As the trials progress, Sierra Nevada will be joined by aerospace titan Lockheed Martin, who had officially announced a partnership with Wednesday. According to Voss, Lockheed is building the more advanced craft to be used after the test flights, while Sierra Nevada is designing systems for that more developed model.
NASA, according to Popular Science, currently provides some funds to Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. It said earlier this month that those companies will fill the test flights with their own personnel before NASA astronauts are placed into private crafts for exploration. By 2017, NASA, according to Space, hopes private, American-developed crafts will be capable of ferrying astronauts into space. Until then, the space agency is relying on the Russian Soyuz for orbital taxi service.
MSN News on Facebook and Twitter
Stay up to date on breaking news and current events.
Friend us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/news.msn
Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msnnews