Sierra Nevada Reserves Atlas Rocket for Dream Chaser Test Flight

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp., one of three firms vying for what is expected to be the final round of NASA funding to develop commercial space taxis, has reserved an Atlas 5 rocket launch for a 2016 unmanned orbital test flight, the company said Jan. 23. 

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Corporate Vice President Mark Sirangelo said Sierra Nevada will go ahead with the first orbital test flight of its Dream Chaser spaceplane in November 2016 whether or not his firm wins a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract (CCtCAP). NASA’s solicitation for proposals closed Jan. 22. 

“It is a confirmed launch date. It’s a confirmed payment on the launch to start the process working,” Sirangelo told reporters at a press conference. 

“What happens after the [NASA] contract award happens or not happens we’ll decide then, but we are moving forward on the program for this one,” he added.

Michael Gass, president and chief executive of Atlas 5 provider United Launch Alliance, said in a statement that the Denver company is “honored that Sierra Nevada Corporation has reserved a proven Atlas V to launch its first flight test in 2016.”

Sierra Nevada, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Boeing have ongoing partnering agreements with NASA worth a combined $1.1 billion. The new contract or contracts — NASA has not yet determined whether it will keep funding more than one company — are intended to lead to test flights with astronauts to the international space station and will include options for future operational missions. 

NASA’s goal is to fly astronauts on a U.S. commercial carrier before the end of 2017, breaking Russia’s monopoly on station crew transports, a service that costs the United States more than $60 million a seat.

The 2014 omnibus spending bill completed earlier this month earmarks $696 million of President Barack Obama’s requested $821 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. 

Sierra Nevada also unveiled plans to set up Dream Chaser’s flight processing operations at the Kennedy Space Center, sharing space in the Apollo-era Operations and Checkout Building and partnering with NASA’s Orion capsule prime contractor Lockheed Martin. 

“The vehicle can be brought in horizontally and de-serviced and refurbished for the next flight using a lot of the same technology and components that we’re developing for the Orion,” said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Space Systems deputy program manager for Orion.