CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.  – Sierra Nevada Corporation has won the NASA’s contract to launch cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), joining competitors SpaceX and Orbital ATK, as the U.S. space agency announced Thursday. The company’s Dream Chaser spacecraft will be capable of carrying astronauts or not and first flights are expected in 2019, running through 2024.

NASA decided to pick a third company for increased flexibility after recent launch accidents by SpaceX and Orbital.

An artists's representation of the Dream Chaser going into orbit. Photo: Mashable/Sierra Nevada
An artists’s representation of the Dream Chaser going into orbit. Photo: Mashable/Sierra Nevada Corporation

Dream Chaser is a reusable, autonomous space plane that has the capability of landing on wheels, just like a commercial airplane. That represents a great advantage over SpaceX and Orbital ATK space crafts, which cannot land on a runway, according to Vice-president Mark Sirangelo. Dream Chaser can land at the old shuttle landing facility Kennedy Space Center. Almost immediately, NASA scientists can be able to unload the cargo.

“Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” Sirangelo said in a statement.

Kirk Shireman, NASA’s space station program manager, said he has been making sure that the Dream Chaser could land on many runways. However, he and his team are focused on retrieving science samples as quickly as possible in order to conduct analysis. On the other hand, SpaceX uses an ocean parachute drop.

Shireman commented that the air traffic controllers would probably be annoyed with Dream Chaser landing at Washington Dulles International or other important airports, but he said the space aircraft was most likely to land near the Sierra Nevada’s facilities in Florida.

In 2014, Sierra Nevada’s space plane was rejected by NASA when the company lost out to its competitors in a bid to carry astronauts to the ISS, which makes of the recent contract a second chance.

The company was forced to lay off dozens of employees as it lost the crew contract, but is now prepared to hire “significant” numbers of qualified people as soon as it gets further and more detailed information of the timing of the program from NASA. In total, the agency said it could spend up to $14 billion on the program but expects that amount of money to be less.

Source: Washington Post