Intelligent Machines

Chasing the Dream

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.

This story is part of our March/April 2011 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.