NASA is adding a third company to its short list of space station suppliers, a Nevada business that will bring back a mini version of the shuttle.
On Thursday, NASA announced Sierra Nevada Corp. will join SpaceX and Orbital ATK in launching cargo to the International Space Station. These flights, yet to be ordered up, will begin in 2019 and run through 2024.
Sierra Nevada competed for NASA's commercial crew contract, but lost out in 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing. This marks a second chance for the Sparks, Nevada-based company, which is developing a scaled-down shuttle called Dream Chaser. The other companies use standard-shaped capsules.
Like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada plans to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft will be able to land back on Earth, like the shuttle, and bring back science experiments and other items from the station. "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," Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada's space systems, said in a statement.
NASA's space station program manager, Kirk Shireman, said he's been assured that the Dream Chaser could touch down on lots of runways — in lots of places. The goal is to retrieve science samples, though, as quickly as possible for analysis. A runway touchdown would be gentler than an ocean parachute drop used by SpaceX.
"At the Dulles Airport, we don't have that many labs" for processing specimens, Shireman told reporters. "And by the way, the air traffic controllers would hate us landing there. Most likely, we'll land in Florida, right close to where our facilities are."
6 flights each
Now, only SpaceX can return goods. In its latest proposal, SpaceX has offered to return its Dragon capsules to land as well, Shireman said. Other cargo ships, including Orbital's Cygnus and Russia's Progress, are filled with trash and burn up on re-entry.
Recent launch accidents by SpaceX and Orbital prompted NASA to pick a third vendor, for increased flexibility.
Orbital launched from Wallops Island, Va., until a launch explosion in 2014. SpaceX experienced its own launch failure last summer.
NASA awarded its first commercial resupply contracts in 2008. The first flight was in 2012. The latest contract calls for a minimum of six flights by each of the three companies.