Getting astronauts to space has never been easy, but for years it could be described as routine. Whether aboard a Space Shuttle or a Soyuz capsule, NASA astronauts could reliably reach the International Space Station and other orbital targets. Today that access is as uncertain as it has been in decades. With the Space Shuttles retired and Russia threatening to bar Americans from the Soyuz as a result of increasing international tensions, NASA needs a new ride to space as quickly as possible.
To address this pressing need, NASA is supporting the development of several new human-capable space transports. In addition to the agency's own Orion capsule and the well-known Dragon program from SpaceX, NASA has provided funding to Sierra Nevada for the development of a different kind of orbiter: the Dream Chaser.
Unlike NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, who have returned to capsule designs resembling the Apollo era, Sierra Nevada's ship could at first glance be mistaken for a Space Shuttle. While capsule-type spacecraft will splash down in the ocean and rely on surface ships for recovery, the Dream Chaser will be capable of landing on a commercial runway. This will enable it to fly multiple missions and land anywhere in the world.
Of course, a more complicated landing method requires more extensive testing and so Sierra Nevada recently spent time at the NASA Ames Research Center performing wind tunnel tests on scale models of the Dream Chaser. These tests demonstrate that the ship will glide stably back to Earth in a variety of wind conditions and that undue pressure isn't building up anywhere because of an engineering flaw.
These tests aren't just to double-check things. When NASA awards funding to a company like Sierra Nevada, it specifies a series of milestones that must be completed. After each milestone is accomplished, the next portion of funding is unlocked. In this case, the company received $20 million for successful completion of wind tunnel testing.
If all goes well, Sierra Nevada hopes to put the Dream Chaser into orbit for the first time in November 2016. This is similar to the projected timeline for SpaceX's Dragon capsule, meaning that NASA still needs to figure out how to get to space for the next two years. I'm sure a lot of people over there are privately hoping that the United States can make nice with Russia, or at least nice enough to work together again. Only time will tell...