The space company Sierra Nevada shipped the world’s first private, pilot-less space shuttle to California for testing Thursday.
The pilot-less shuttle, called Dream Chaser, will undergo its first test flight later in 2016, and the Sierra Nevada plans to send the shuttle into space in late 2019.
“We’re going to take it up to a very high altitude. We’re going to drop it and it’s going to fly itself,” Mark Sirangelo, the vice president of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, told a local Colorado news outlet. “It’s autonomous space vehicle, which means that onboard computers control everything that it does.”
Currently, the only working space shuttle drone is the Boeing X-37, operated by the U.S. Air Force for orbital spaceflight missions.
NASA has a contract to use Dream Chaser to resupply the International Space Station by carrying cargo and eventually people up to it. Further development of the shuttle includes a manned version that would be capable of carrying up to seven people to and from low-Earth-orbit.
Sierra Nevada intends Dream Chaser to be fully reusable, which could make the drone shuttle much cheaper than NASA’s manned shuttle. Reusable space technology is considered a major advance because it has the potential to lower the costs of getting into orbit, which are high due to expensive rocket components.
America’s Space Shuttle was only technically reusable because its giant fuel tank was discarded after each launch, and its side boosters were parachuted into corrosive salt water. This required them to be extensively refurbished after use, making the Space Shuttle extremely expensive.
Private space companies have made enormous advances in reuseable rocketry very recently. Blue Origin, a private space company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, launched and landed the first reusable rocket into space last November. The company is already opening “early access” to ticket information for potential space tourists. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX failed on two separate occasions to successfully land a reusable rocket before successfully sticking the landing in November.
Besides the American military, only a small group of private companies such as Scaled Composites, Blue Origin and SpaceX have successfully operated a reusable spacecraft.
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