Coming Soon: The Dream Chaser, a Nimbler Space Shuttle

This NASA-funded project could head into orbit within just a few years

Dream Chaser
Ken Ulbrich / NASA

The Dream Chaser

Dream Chaser
(Ken Ulbrich / NASA)

You will, it is hoped, forgive the fanciful name: the Dream Chaser. But there is something distinctly aspirational about the shrink-wrapped experimental spacecraft that arrived at Edwards Air Force Base in California on the back of a flatbed truck. Designed by the SpaceDev Company and built in Colorado by the Sierra Nevada Corporation with $330 million in NASA funding, it’s based on a decades-old NASA design concept called the HL-20, which was itself reverse-engineered from a 1980s Soviet prototype spotted by an Australian spy plane.

Space Plane

Dream Chaser
(Ken Ulbrich / NASA)

But the Dream Chaser is no cold war relic. Conceived as a smaller, nimbler version of the space shuttle—a mere 29.5-feet long, compared with the 122-foot-long shuttle orbiter—the reusable space plane is designed to carry as many as seven crew members to the International Space Station or low-Earth orbit, and is versatile enough to be launched atop a variety of rockets. Like the space shuttle, it’s built to make an airplane-style “soft” landing on a runway. By contrast, the other shuttle replacements in development, one manufactured by Boeing and the other by Space X, land as parachute-aided capsules.

Soft Landing

Dream Chaser
(Ken Ulbrich / NASA)

This summer, Dream Chaser will be autonomously piloted as it is released from a high-altitude helicopter to land on a runway. If it beats out competitors, it could go into orbit as soon as 2017.