1 of 3 | The Dream Chaser space plane sits on the runway at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corp.
ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp. aims to complete its first operational Dream Chaser space plane by March to provide cargo trips to the International Space Station.
The spacecraft, which resembles a small space shuttle, originally was proposed to carry astronauts, but Sierra Nevada so far only has NASA contracts for cargo.
Company executives continue to say they believe Dream Chaser will carry people someday. The company updates designs for Dream Chaser as NASA's commercial crew program updates its requirements.
"We've never stopped trying to move that forward, although we are not currently funded by NASA for crew missions," said John Roth, vice president of business development at the company, told UPI last week.
Sierra Nevada plans Dream Chaser's first cargo mission for late 2021, to be launched aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket. Since it isn't carrying people, no test flights beyond short drops from aircraft completed in 2013 and 2017 are required, Roth said.
"NASA will look at our ability to control the vehicle and rendezvous with the station," Roth said.
Sierra Nevada in 2014 lost a competition for a multibillion-dollar astronaut contract to SpaceX and Boeing in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, but has won over $2 billion in NASA contracts to develop Dream Chaser as a cargo vessel.
SpaceX on Aug. 2 completed the first successful flight of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station and back with astronauts on board.
Boeing's first attempt to fly its Starliner capsule to the space station failed in December. The company plans to try the test flight again later this year.
Dream Chaser would return to Earth under its own power. A prototype has been tested by dropping it from an aircraft, but it has yet to launch as intended on a rocket sent into space.
Sierra Nevada won NASA contracts for two cargo trips, Roth said. The company has reserved six launches on ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is being developed.
Dream Chaser should be more appealing, someday, to space tourists since it resembles a plane and doesn't land with a jolt under parachutes like a space capsule, Roth said.
Sierra Nevada plans to develop an entire business line around Dream Chaser, including space tourism, said Chris Quilty, an analyst with St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Quilty Analytics.
"Losing the astronaut contract was a disappointment, but getting the cargo contract, that was a lifeline for Dream Chaser," Quilty said. "Unlike a capsule, this can touch down on a runway, and NASA or other scientists can retrieve time-sensitive payloads immediately."
Sierra Nevada still has time to grab NASA's attention again if Boeing doesn't perform well on its next test flight, said Marco Cáceres, senior space analyst at Washington D.C.-based Teal Group.
"Their relationship with NASA is solid, and that's a good thing," Caceres said. "Boeing was a legacy supplier, and [NASA] really couldn't say no to SpaceX."
Ultimately, safety and reliability will determine who flies spacecraft with people on board, he said.
Sierra Nevada challenged NASA's decision to cut it out of the astronaut program. But a government watchdog rejected the challenge in 2018.
"NASA also recognized several favorable features in the Sierra Nevada and SpaceX proposals, but ultimately concluded that SpaceX's lower price made it a better value than the proposal submitted by Sierra Nevada," the summary of the decision said.
NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley (C) waves to onlookers as he boards a plane at Naval Air Station Pensacola to return him and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken home to Houston a few hours after the duo landed in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft off the coast of Pensacola, Fla,, on August 2, 2020. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo