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The Sierra Nevada Corporation’s entry into the new space industry is the Dream Chaser, a spacecraft the size of a business jet that it’s building to take cargo and passengers—up to seven at a time—into low Earth orbit.

Although the craft is based on NASA designs, developing any vehicle is risky. And even if Sierra Nevada succeeds in building a working Dream Chaser, the company will face significant obstacles, says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Any new spacecraft will be unproven in terms of safety and reliability, so customers like the U.S. government (which so far has signed contracts only for transporting cargo) will be cautious about risking astronauts on a new design. It’s a bit of a catch-22. “There is potential for the new vehicles to be safer than the space shuttle, but the only way you really know is by flying,” says Pace.

Sierra Nevada has a little more room to navigate these bureaucratic shoals than some, because the firm has income from divisions that make a range of aerospace products. The privately held company, which was founded in 1963, employs about 2,100 people; it has been profitable for the past 13 years and had over $1 billion in revenue in 2010.

Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division, doesn’t know when the Dream Chaser will be profitable. “We’re entering an unknown world,” he says. The company isn’t disclosing exact figures, but Sierra Nevada has invested tens of millions of its own money in the project so far (offset somewhat by $20 million in development grants the company has received from NASA).

The company is designing the Dream Chaser so that each craft can be flown 50 to 100 times. Consequently, everything except the launch booster and the fuel cartridges is designed to be reused. In addition to trying to sell seats and cargo space to NASA for transport to and from the International Space Station, Sierra Nevada plans to go after space tourists, signing an agreement with Virgin Galactic to market orbital flights. Sirangelo also expects research institutes to buy room on the Dream Chaser to send experiments into space.

Last year, Sierra Nevada tested the Dream Chaser’s frame and engines. This year, the company will drop the spacecraft from an airplane to see how it flies. The company is applying for a second round of NASA funding and expects to put a Dream Chaser in orbit by 2014.

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Video by Katherine Bourzac, edited by Brittany Sauser

Tagged: Computing

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