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Six years ago, a small aerospace company that Sirangelo headed, called SpaceDev, licensed the design from NASA and began to modify it, for instance adding the hybrid motors. The motors burn an unusual fuel: a combination of recycled rubber and nitrous oxide. This has almost the same energy density as conventional fuel but can be burned in a more controlled way and thus might be safer, though only multiple flights can prove whether it is. Sirangelo compares the system to a burner on a gas stove that can be turned to a lower or higher flame. The same hybrid motor was used in SpaceShipOne, which won the X Prize in 2004, and will also be incorporated in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, intended to fly tourists into suborbital space.

Sierra Nevada, which acquired SpaceDev when it formed its space division two years ago, hopes NASA will be one of its major customers. The company will also go after space tourists and this winter signed an agreement with Virgin to market and pilot the tourist flights. If other companies, such as Bigelow Airspace, succeed in developing nongovernmental space stations, they’ll need transportation to get people there, and Sierra Nevada is eyeing this potential market as well. What’s more, Sirangelo expects that universities and other research institutes will be interested in buying space on the Dream Chaser to send experiments into orbit for a week or so.

Everything on the Dream Chaser except the initial launch booster and the fuel cartridges is designed to be reused. Still, turning a profit will require flying multiple Dream Chasers 50 to 100 times each, and Sirangelo admits that he doesn’t know when that will occur. “We’re entering an unknown world,” he says. The company isn’t disclosing exact figures, but Sierra Nevada, a profitable company founded in 1963, has invested tens of millions of dollars in the project—more than the company received from NASA this year. Sirangelo says Sierra Nevada plans to continue to invest its own money in the project. “If we don’t get to our milestones, we don’t get paid,” says Sirangelo. The company has applied for a second round of funding from NASA that will be given out later this year.

In addition to the business risks inherent in developing an orbital vehicle, there are technological and policy uncertainties, too, says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. A vehicle like the Dream Chaser doesn’t have the Soyuz’s flight history; though engineers have been working on the designs for a long time, the technologies don’t have a history of safety and reliability. Safety problems were part of the reason for discontinuing the shuttle program. “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. If the regulatory burden under which NASA labors were applied to commercial efforts to make crew vehicles, it would crush them—but what kind of compromise regulations will be written is still unclear.

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Credit: Katherine Bourzac

Tagged: Computing, space, spacecraft, ISS, commercial space

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