Is Dream Chaser the new space shuttle?

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(CNN) — Have you been listening to all the kvetching and tooth-gnashing about America paying Russia $65-to-$70 million for each astronaut to ride to the space station?

You should hear what people at NASA and elsewhere in the U.S. aerospace industry are telling their friends: They’re embarrassed – even angry – that the guys who won the Cold War space race are no longer in the driver’s seat.

Why, oh, why, they moan, did Washington end the shuttle program before building a replacement? How fast can the United States develop a new machine to deliver Americans into orbit so they can make scientific and technological breakthroughs?

How fast? Last month, less than a year after the final space shuttle mission, a SpaceX unmanned Dragon became the first private spacecraft to reach the orbiting space station.

But you probably knew that. Here’s what you may have missed: A few days after SpaceX’s triumph, a winged mini-space shuttle took to the air in its first flight test.

Wait. What? There’s a new space shuttle in development?

Yep, it’s called Dream Chaser. And it’s made to fly on laughing gas.

But more on that in a second.

During the May 29 aerodynamic test, Sierra Nevada Corp. engineers hung the company’s 25,000-pound spacecraft from a helicopter flying about 10,000 feet above Jefferson County, Colorado.

“It performed perfectly and did exactly what our team designed it to do,” said Col. Jim Voss, a retired NASA astronaut and Sierra Nevada’s vice president of space exploration systems.

Perhaps many folks who don’t closely follow the space industry are completely unaware of this sleek orbiter.

Like NASA’s shuttle, Dream Chaser is reusable. It’s also got wings that allow it to fly back to Earth. But it’s a lot smaller. Unlike the shuttle, it’s designed to blast off on top of an Atlas V rocket, carrying up to seven astronauts to the orbiting space station.

Then, if everything goes as planned, the thing is supposed to use its onboard rockets to cross into the atmosphere and land on a conventional runway.

Among the several firms competing to be NASA’s new astronaut taxi, Dream Chaser is the only system with wings, according to Sierra Nevada.

Why aren’t more people aware of Dream Chaser? “We’re pretty quiet as a company,” Voss said. Sierra Nevada develops special aircraft for the Defense Department and devices for communication and intelligence gathering, Voss said. “Because of that, I think the company has just not felt like it has needed to do a bunch of advertising.”

A few quick Dream Chaser tidbits:

–Its engine system is a hybrid. It burns a solid tire-like rubber called HTPD (hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene) and nitrous oxide. That’s right, laughing gas, the same stuff some dentists use to kill the pain when you get a tooth pulled or a root canal. “We picked this system because it is the safest possible configuration there is,” Voss said. “But you don’t get as much performance per pound of fuel that you use.”

–The Dream Chaser is based on a design concept that was originally developed decades ago by the Soviets. NASA reverse engineered it to learn how it worked. Sierra Nevada is using that engineering information to develop the spacecraft.

–It can go from roll-out to the launch pad in as fast as two hours, according to Sierra Nevada.

–During re-entry, it’s designed to inflict on passengers a very light g-force of 1.5 times gravity, which will make it less likely that passengers would blackout.

Dream Chaser is just one of several systems being developed by private firms in hopes of winning additional NASA funding.

Also in the mix with Sierra Nevada and SpaceX is Boeing, which is developing a spacecraft of its own – a capsule-based vehicle called CST-100, which it tested in a Nevada helicopter drop last month. Capsules are less complicated than a winged craft, but they have fewer landing options. To deal with that, SpaceX plans to develop a capsule that can land with rockets.

Although SpaceX is widely seen as leading the pack in this private space race, insiders say it’s too early to know whether Sierra Nevada or Boeing poses a threat. It’s hard to know which systems will be the most reliable, the cheapest and most efficient.

“I don’t know if you’d call it a space race,” Voss said. “But we’re the only competitors with a vehicle that will physically fly back to runway, so we think we’re in a good position to provide the type of transportation that NASA will want for their crews.”

More than a few data-head aerospace engineers acknowledge they have a romantic soft-spot for a winged spacecraft so reminiscent of NASA’s shuttle.

So what’s the next giant leap for Dream Chaser? Autonomous flight.

This August or September, Voss said, they’ll drop the spacecraft from a powerful helicopter above California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

Perhaps a military CH-46 Sea Knight or CH-47 Chinook might be brought in to let Dream Chaser spread its wings from as high as 20,000 feet, said Voss. If all goes well, this bird will fly on its own for the first time, before it glides to a landing.

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