What's different about NASA's new plan for space station deliveries?

NASA awarded to the contract for delivering cargo to the International Space Station to three companies, including Sierra Nevada, which has not contracted with NASA before but promises the capability of a touchdown landing and a reusable rocket.

Ken Ulbrich/NASA/Reuters
Sierra Nevada Corporation engineers and technicians prepare the firm's Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle for tow tests. NASA hired a third company to fly cargo to the International Space Station, adding an innovative space plane built by Sierra Nevada Corp to the commercial fleet.

A spacecraft design that began life as a Soviet space plan is now part of NASA's strategy to shift space exploration into the American private sector.

Sierra Nevada Corp. won part of a contract to deliver and return supplies to the International Space Station Thursday with a modified design the Russians originally developed for the space race in the 1960s, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica. An American company used spy images of the Russian design to recreate the spacecraft, and Sierra Nevada has developed and submitted several iterations of the design, but this is its first successful contract to enter space. 

Although it appropriates an originally Soviet plan, Sierra Nevada's spaceship meets distinctly American space ambitions. President Obama has wanted more private companies involved in space missions to increase competition and cut costs, and Congress has tried to wean the space program off its reliance on other nations' shuttles.

"Few would have imagined back in 2010 when President Barack Obama pledged that NASA would work 'with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable,' that less than six years later we’d be able to say commercial carriers have transported 35,000 pounds of space cargo (and counting!) to the International Space Station – or that we’d be so firmly on track to return launches of American astronauts to the ISS from American soil on American commercial carriers," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a press release. "But that is exactly what is happening."

The touch of irony in the Dream Chaser's history marks the major ways the space program has changed since then.

"Now you have private companies owning and operating their own rockets and selling their services to the government," Marco Caceres, a senior analyst and director of space studies for the Virginia aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, told The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts. "The idea is to drive competition and therefore bring down launch costs to the US taxpayer."

The contracts went to three companies, two of which – Orbital and SpaceX – are veterans in the NASA cargo supply department. The third company, Sierra Nevada, is new to NASA but claims its Dream Chaser spaceship is capable of a touchdown entry that can be reused at least 15 times, reported Alex Knapp for Forbes.

It is designed to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land on a runway rather than splash into the ocean or even burn up as space capsules typically do. Sierra Nevada also provides an alternative to the upright landing SpaceX uses in its Falcon model.

The new contracts last through 2024, and each company has a guaranteed six flights. NASA added a third company to the mix partly because both other companies have had spaceships explode during mission attempts, and in addition to an enhanced reusable option, Sierra Nevada promised its spaceships will return in just three to six hours.

"That would be a huge advantage to scientists who currently might have to wait days to recover samples," wrote Mary Beth Griggs for Popular Science.

The company's first chance for a cargo mission is set to come after 2019.

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