NASA-backed space taxi to fly in test next summer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Tue Oct 11, 2011 5:21pm EDT

The sun, a portion of the International Space Station and Earth's horizon are seen during the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-134 mission's fourth spacewalk in this NASA handout photo dated May 2011. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

The sun, a portion of the International Space Station and Earth's horizon are seen during the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-134 mission's fourth spacewalk in this NASA handout photo dated May 2011.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A seven-seat space taxi backed by NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station will make a high-altitude test flight next summer, officials said on Tuesday.

Sierra Nevada Corp's "Dream Chaser" space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is one of four space taxis being developed by private industry with backing from the U.S. government.

For the unmanned test flight, it will be carried into the skies by WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier aircraft for the commercial suborbital passenger ship SpaceShipTwo, backed by Virgin Galactic, a U.S. company owned by Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group.

The test flight was added after privately held Sierra Nevada got a $25.6-million boost to its existing $80 million contract with NASA.

The test flight will take place from either Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, or from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Ed Mango, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said at a community briefing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

With the retirement of the space shuttles this summer, NASA is now dependent on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station, at a cost of more than $50 million per person.

The agency hopes to turn over crew transportation services to one or more commercial firms before the end of 2016, Mango said.

In addition to Sierra Nevada, NASA is funding spaceship development work at Boeing Co, Space Exploration Technologies, and Blue Origin, a start-up firm owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

"Having only one way to get crew to the station is a limitation," NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, who is currently living aboard the outpost, said during an in-flight interview last week.

The station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, was finished this year after more than a decade of construction 225 miles above the planet. The outpost, which is about the size of a five-bedroom house, supports a variety of scientific research and technology demonstrations.

Along with helping to develop commercial space taxis, NASA is working on a heavy-lift rocket and capsule to fly astronauts and cargo to asteroids, the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond the space station's orbit.

Drawing heavily on equipment originally built for predecessor programs, including the space shuttle and the canceled Constellation moon exploration initiative, the new rocket, called the Space Launch System or SLS, is scheduled to debut in 2017.

That unmanned test flight would be followed in 2021 by a trial run with astronauts, said Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman)

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Comments (12)
PhillyJimi wrote:
The SLS is going to fly astronauts in 2021? That is 10 years! They are using off the shelf parts from the shuttle also, to speed things up? In the 60′s NASA had no idea what it was doing and it went to the Moon figuring out things as they went. NASA developed 3 rocket systems for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo all in about 10 years. Something isn’t right here with NASA, congress has turned it into a jobs program, or corporate welfare if you would rather be blunt and just call it what is actually is.

Oct 12, 2011 2:59am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Marla wrote:
Your tax dollars at work, doing absolutely nothing beneficial (as usual). The space program is just a spin off of the military industrial program and should be scrapped. Let’s spend all that money here on earth!

Oct 12, 2011 7:53am EDT  --  Report as abuse
sweettea wrote:
Marla,

If you actually sat down and studied what NASA does and how NASA advances science and technology for our country, you wouldn’t say it was “useless.” Most of NASA is not for military purposes at all. And, this is not about NASA developing the new technology; it is about private companies developing it. Your comment is as short sighted as it is uneducated. The US economy benefits from the billions of dollars in high tech equipment created by NASA, including but not limited to ski glasses that do not fog during the winter. I’m sure you have used them before. And this is just one example of a patent that made billions, which also came from NASA research. Anyone who thinks NASA is a waste of money is in fact showing that they themselves are a drain on our economy. Educate yourselves, please.

Oct 12, 2011 10:15am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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