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Giant leap in race to replace space shuttle? Dream Chaser gets big boost.

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The goal of the NASA commercial crew-transportation program is to free up NASA resources to focus on human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. That means turning to private companies to build a spacecraft to service the space station, which also should help lay the foundation for a broader commercial human-spaceflight industry, advocates of commercialization say.

Last July, the agency divvied up contracts worth a combined $1.1 billion among three companies working on designs – Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), and Sierra Nevada Corp. In December, NASA parceled another $29.6 million among the companies for parallel efforts that focus on meeting its performance and safety requirements.

Compared with the other two contenders' craft, Dream Chaser's design is unique. While Boeing and SpaceX are developing capsules, Dream Chaser is, in effect, a mini space shuttle, winged for a pilot-controlled landing at runways such as the one the shuttle used at the Kennedy Space Center. The craft is designed to carry up to seven people, including the flight crew, as well as cargo.

Within the next six to eight months, the company plans to conduct its first flight tests at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif. The craft will be released from beneath a helicopter, then fly and land without human guidance.

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