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Dream Chaser drama: Sierra Nevada partners with Stratolaunch, challenges NASA

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The Dream Chaser space plane will launch in four years from a carrier craft that will release the vehicle high in the stratosphere.

The Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, managed by NASA, seeks to restore the ability of the national space agency to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), which designed the Dream Chaser, filed suit against NASA, after being denied a contract.

Boeing and SpaceX were each awarded work in the CctCap program, after competing with SNC, which came up empty-handed. All three organizations were found to be compliant with necessary requirements. Officials of Sierra Nevada Corporation filed suit claiming that one of the winning contracts would result in a substantial cost increase to NASA, despite NSC holding a nearly-identical technical record. This is the first time in 51 years in business that the company has filed suit after losing out on a government contract.

The Stratolaunch mothership will carry the Dream Chaser passenger vehicle into the stratosphere, around 30,000 feet above the Earth's surface, where it will be released. When construction of the first of these vehicles is complete, the craft will be the largest airplane in the world. The vehicle, with a wingspan of 385 feet, will be powered by six engines powerful enough to drive a 747. After release of the space ferry, rockets aboard the space plane will fire, carrying passengers into orbit. The first live test of the booster is scheduled to take place in 2018.

The Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature version of the Space Shuttle, is being developed in conjunction with the federal space agency. The full-sized space plane would be able to ferry seven astronauts to orbit, identical to the maximum human capacity of the retired Space Shuttles. In order to be boosted into the atmosphere aboard a Stratolaunch mothership, that capacity would need to be reduced to just a pilot and a pair of passengers. Stratolaunch Systems, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is looking to purchase smaller versions of the space plane, to launch from the mothership to the orbiting outpost.

"[The] Dream Chaser design provides a wider range of capabilities and value including preserving the heritage of the space shuttle program through its design as a piloted, reusable, lifting-body spacecraft that embodies the advanced technologies of today and flexibility that enables the innovations of the future. It was also the only vehicle remaining in the Commercial Crew Program that was not a capsule" SNC officials wrote in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

The Government Accountability Office is expected to rule in the Sierra Nevada lawsuit on or before January 5, 2015.

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