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Technology & Innovation

Private Space Plane Has Soviet Roots

The next-generation spaceship chosen to fly American astronauts into orbit and back may look a lot like N.A.S.A.’s soon-to-be-retired space shuttle—and it even has N.A.S.A. roots, too.

What’s the Latest Development?

A small space shuttle originally reverse engineered by N.A.S.A., using some spy plane photos taken of a Soviet prototype, has been passed into the hands of the private space company Sierra Nevada Corporation. Called the HL-20 Dream Chaser, the small shuttle may one day provide orbital taxi services to N.A.S.A. for trips to the International Space Station. “N.A.S.A. didn’t dream up the HL-20 all by itself. Rather, the agency was inspired by photos taken in 1982 by an Australian spy plane, which showed a Soviet ship recovering a spacecraft from the Indian Ocean.”

What’s the Big Idea?

As N.A.S.A. prepares to terminate its shuttle program in the coming weeks, the space exploration torch is being passed to private industry. “The commercial space company SpaceDev, which was later acquired by Sierra Nevada, publicly announced plans for the Dream Chaser vehicle in 2004. Multiple concepts were initially considered, but ultimately company officials opted to go with the HL-20. … On April 18, NASA awarded the company $80 million to continue developing the spacecraft after it was judged among four winners of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development program.”


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