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Giant leap in race to replace space shuttle? Dream Chaser gets big boost.

Sierra Nevada Corp., which is designing a mini space shuttle called the Dream Chaser, announced that it's joining forces with Lockheed Martin – heavy-hitter in aerospace.

By Staff writer / January 30, 2013

This artist's rendering shows the Dream Chaser spacecraft docking with the International Space Station. Dream Chaser's developer, Sierra Nevada Corp., is partnering with Lockheed Martin.

Sierra Nevada Space Systems/AP/File

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One of three companies vying to ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station has inked a multimillion dollar deal with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in a move aimed at preparing a craft dubbed Dream Chaser for the task.

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The move by Sierra Nevada Corp. highlights the pace at which the company's plans are morphing from plans on paper to hardware on the shop floor. "We're moving from concept to the next phase of the program, probably faster than most people realize," said Mark Sirangelo, who heads the company's space-systems division. 

Through Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada will have access to expertise in using composite materials that Dream Chaser needs, as well as to large manufacturing facilities required to assemble several craft. In addition, Lockheed developed the Atlas V rocket, which is a likely launch vehicle for Dream Chaser, and has experience working with NASA to certify spacecraft for human spaceflight.

It appears to be a significant step forward for the aerospace company, which has been around for 25 years, but has previously focused on smaller ventures. The company has produced small satellites, components for projects such as the Mars Science Laboratory, and rocket motors, including motors for Burt Rutan's Spaceship One and its tourist version for Virgin Galactic, Spaceship Two.

The goal of the NASA commercial crew-transportation program is to free up NASA resources to focus on human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. That means turning to private companies to build a spacecraft to service the space station, which also should help lay the foundation for a broader commercial human-spaceflight industry, advocates of commercialization say.

Last July, the agency divvied up contracts worth a combined $1.1 billion among three companies working on designs – Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), and Sierra Nevada Corp. In December, NASA parceled another $29.6 million among the companies for parallel efforts that focus on meeting its performance and safety requirements.

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