BOULDER, Colo. — Sitting in a testing facility at the University of Colorado, the inner shell of the Dream Chaser space plane looks like the fuselage of an old DC-3.
ASTRONAUT TRANSIT NASA provided $20 million for the development of the Dream Chaser, illustrated here docking at the International Space Station.
YEARS AWAY Orbital Sciences says the development of Prometheus, background, would cost $3.5 billion to $4 billion.
The test structure has been pushed and pulled to see how it holds up to the stresses and strains of spaceflight. With an additional infusion of money from NASA, the company that makes the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, hopes to complete the rest of the structure and eventually take astronauts to orbit.
“Our view is if we could stop buying from the Russians, if we could make life cheaper for NASA, and if we could build a few vehicles that do other things in low-Earth orbit that are valuable, isn’t that, at the end of the day, a good thing?” said Mark N. Sirangelo, the company’s chairman.
The Dream Chaser is one of several new spacecraft that companies are hoping to launch into space with help from the government. Last year, the Obama administration pushed through an ambitious transformation for NASA: canceling the Ares I rocket, which was to be the successor to the current generation of space shuttles, and turning to the commercial sector for astronaut transportation.
So far, most of the attention in this new commercial space race has focused on Boeing, which has five decades of experience building spacecraft, and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX, for short — a brash upstart that gained credibility last year with two launchings of its Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal and chief executive of Tesla Motors, already has a NASA contract for delivering cargo to the space station, and says that it can easily add up to seven seats to its Dragon cargo capsule to make it suitable for passengers. Boeing is also designing a capsule, capable of carrying six passengers, under the corporate-sounding designation of CST-100.
But Boeing and SpaceX are not the only competitors seeking to provide space taxi services, a program that NASA calls commercial crew. Last year, in the first-round financing provided for preliminary development, Sierra Nevada Space Systems won the largest award: $20 million out of a total of $50 million.
In December, another space company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, announced it had submitted a similar bid for a space plane it wants financed during the second round. NASA is to announce the winners by the end of March, and they will divide $200 million.
About half of NASA’s $19 billion budget goes toward human spaceflight — the space shuttles, the International Space Station — and $200 million this year is just a small slice.
“If this is indeed the path to do this work, it’s probably not what they should be putting into it,” said Mr. Sirangelo, who is also chairman emeritus of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group. “But on the other hand, it’s a lot more than we had before. And it’s an acknowledgment there’s momentum in the industry and what we’re trying to accomplish. So that’s good.”
After the second round, NASA would like narrow its choices down to two, maybe three, systems to finance.
“We think this is in effect a one-year race to see who gets the furthest,” Mr. Sirangelo said, “and at the end of that, presumably the next two years of the authorization bill gets funded, and then you compete for that pot of money.”
The blueprint for NASA, passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Obama, calls for spending on commercial crew to rise to $500 million each year in 2012 and 2013.
Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who was one of the primary architects of the blueprint, as the authorization act was called, has said the intent was to provide $6 billion over six years.
But what Congress puts into the budget could be far less.
“They’re not getting $6 billion over six years for commercial crew,” said a Senate aide who was not authorized to speak for attribution. “That’s never going to happen.”
The aide estimated commercial crew might receive half that much.
In addition, Congress has not passed the final 2011 budget, and Mr. Obama wants to freeze spending at many federal agencies. Whether the freeze includes NASA will not be known until the president’s 2012 budget request is released in two weeks.
While Sierra Nevada has the lowest profile of the companies seeking commercial crew business, it is not new. The parent company, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, is a privately held defense electronics firm founded in 1963, and a few years ago, it bought several space companies and rolled them into the space systems subsidiary.
The space systems subsidiary, located outside Denver, is the largest manufacturer in the United States of small satellites, Mr. Sirangelo said. The satellites, used for communications and other purposes, cannot do everything that large ones can do, but what they can do, they do more cheaply and more efficiently.
The Dream Chaser embodies the same philosophy. “There are some tasks that can be done by smaller, cheaper vehicles that used to be done by very expensive vehicles,” Mr. Sirangelo said.
Mr. Sirangelo said the company had invested its own money into the Dream Chaser — indeed, more than the $20 million that NASA has provided. Over the past year, the company has done a test-firing of the engines it plans to use on the Dream Chaser, and it dropped a scale model of the spacecraft from a helicopter to verify the aerodynamics.
But it is a jump from making spacecraft components and small satellites to building a crew-carrying space plane, and where Sierra Nevada lacks in skills and experience, it has brought in other companies and institutions. Its Dream Chaser partners include Draper Laboratory, which has been designing spacecraft guidance systems since Apollo; NASA’s Langley Research Center, which did much of the development that the Dream Chaser is based on; Boeing, which has also worked on space planes; and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that builds the Atlas V rocket that the Dream Chaser would ride atop.
Virgin Galactic, the spacecraft division of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, signed on as a strategic partner in December. Among the possible roles that Virgin could play is selling seats on the Dream Chaser. (Virgin signed a similar agreement with Orbital.)
The design of the Dream Chaser also has a long lineage, inspired by a Soviet spacecraft. In 1982, an Australian reconnaissance airplane photographed a Russian trawler pulling something with stubby wings out of the Indian Ocean. It turned out to be a test flight of a space plane called the Bor-4, and the craft captured enough curiosity that engineers at NASA Langley copied it.
NASA called its version the HL-20, and for a while in 1991, it looked to be the low-cost choice for taking astronauts to and from the space station. Then the NASA administrator who liked it, Vice Adm. Richard Truly of the Navy, left, and the man who replaced him, Daniel S. Goldin, thought it was not cheap enough and ended the work.
The Dream Chaser design keeps the exact outer shape from the HL-20 — a decision that allows Sierra Nevada to take advantage of years of wind tunnel tests that Langley had performed — while modifying the design within. The biggest change is the addition of two engines, which reduces the number of passengers to seven from 10, but adds maneuverability. To finish developing the Dream Chaser would require less than $1 billion, Mr. Sirangelo said, and it could be ready to fly an orbital test flight in three years.
He imagines that one flight could combine a number of tasks — taking astronauts to the space station and then stopping on the return trip to repair or refuel a satellite. “This vehicle is perfectly designed to do all that,” Mr. Sirangelo said.
Officials at Orbital Sciences — a company in Dulles, Va., that builds and launches rockets and satellites for everything from television broadcasts to scientific research — say they are excited by the possibilities of commercial crew, but they are more cautious. Orbital, founded in 1982, was a survivor from the last boom-and-bust in commercial space.
Its space plane design is a refinement of the HL-20. Following in the pattern of tapping Greek mythology for the names of its spacecraft, Orbital calls its plane Prometheus. Orbital says development of Prometheus would cost $3.5 billion to $4 billion, which would include the cost of upgrading the Atlas V rocket and two test flights.
With enough financial support, David W. Thompson, chief executive of Orbital, is sure that his company can build and operate Prometheus. But he is less sure that his industry is at a tipping point for spaceflight to become much more common, driving down prices and opening up space to new businesses.
“I think it depends on what the demand curve really is,” Mr. Thompson said. “I would say I’m highly skeptical.”