In 2016, the next generation space shuttle, the Dream Chaser, will blast into orbit. Strapped to the back of an Atlas V rocket and developed by private company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, the shuttle will be able to ferry seven astronauts to orbit and back.
The flight is currently scheduled to launch on November 1, 2016, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and while the Dream Chaser’s first flight will be unmanned, the plan is to eventually shuttle astronauts into low-Earth orbit by 2017. Once Dream Chaser shoots into orbit, it’ll hang out for about a day before landing on the western coast of the U.S.
In 2011 NASA retired its space shuttle fleet so now the agency is relying on privately funded space planes like the Dream Chaser and the Space X Dragon to handle round-trip missions to and from the International Space Station. Although Space X has successfully shuttled supplies to the ISS, NASA currently relies on Russian Soyuz space capsules to get astronauts to and from the station.
“We expect to have a fleet of these vehicles, much like the shuttle with different purposes,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems. “Some will be all crew, some will be crew and cargo. Some will be cargo, some will be servicing, and we also think that at some point there will be independent science ability with the vehicle. It’s a multi use vehicle, we like to think of it as our ‘space SUV’ and we’re very proud of it.”
So far NASA has injected over $300 million into the project as there is a vested interest in providing a safe, reliable commercially-operated transportation service for crew and cargo to the ISS and back to Earth. Future Dream Chaser missions potentially include delivering crew and cargo to other orbiting facilities—including a European orbital facility after the ISS is decommissioned in 2024 or, functioning as a short term independent orbiting laboratory for other government agencies or commercial entities, as well as potential orbital space tourism.