Sierra Space, a subsidiary of the Sierra Nevada company, wants its nine-meter spacecraft, called “Dream Chaser” (Dream Chaser), carry out its first missions this year, banking on the reusable ship as the cornerstone of its ambitions.
“Before, only governments could do it. Now, ordinary human beings can go to space,” Neeraj Gupta, responsible for Sierra Nevada, told AFP.
The small shuttle was designed to transport people and equipment to and from commercial space facilities that the company plans to build in the next 10 years, especially a system of inflatable structures intended to accommodate humans in orbit.
Sierra Nevada signed an agreement with the NASA for unmanned flights to the international space station, which should begin in 2022, and collaborates with the company Blue Origin, from Jeff Bezos, co-founder of online trading giant Amazon.
Commercial space-related projects are advancing at a dizzying pace, particularly rocket launches from SpaceX, the company founded by the South African Elon Musk – also owner of the electric car company Tesla – which transports astronauts for NASA.
Last year, Bezos’s space trip, aboard a Blue Origin rocket, sparked both fascination and a barrage of criticism for the “race to space” among billionaires.
Beyond tourism, the space is now perceived as a new commercial horizon to be taken seriously.
Many companies had been drawn to more or less outlandish ideas, such as mining asteroids or biomedical applications, but until five years ago the idea of producing something in space and bringing it to Earth did not make sense, explains Mason Peck, professor of astronautics at Cornell University.
“There are companies currently looking at this question: How can I make money in space?” Peck said.
The lure of profit has the power to dramatically accelerate productivity and technological advances, much more so than the slow and thoughtful approach of NASA or the European space agency.
“More capital is being poured into the space industry. Technology is getting better, costs are going down, so everyone benefits,” says Mike Gruntman, a professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California.
However, the prospect of an increase in space activity by private companies could also generate real risks.
“There will surely be a time when a tragedy will occur. There are traffic accidents, bridges that collapse,” Peck warns.