Will we ever get a space plane? Read our responses to some of the comments this story received.
Have you been listening to all the kvetching and tooth-gnashing about America paying Russia $65-to-$70 million for each astronaut to ride to the space station?
You should hear what people at NASA and elsewhere in the U.S. aerospace industry are telling their friends: They're embarrassed - even angry - that the guys who won the Cold War space race are no longer in the driver's seat.
Why, oh, why, they moan, did Washington end the shuttle program before building a replacement? How fast can the United States develop a new machine to deliver Americans into orbit so they can make scientific and technological breakthroughs?
How fast? Last month, less than a year after the final space shuttle mission, a SpaceX unmanned Dragon became the first private spacecraft to reach the orbiting space station.
But you probably knew that. Here's what you may have missed: A few days after SpaceX's triumph, a winged mini-space shuttle took to the air in its first flight test.
Wait. What? There's a new space shuttle in development?
Yep, it's called Dream Chaser. And it's made to fly on laughing gas.
But more on that in a second.
During the May 29 aerodynamic test, Sierra Nevada Corp. engineers hung the company's 25,000-pound spacecraft from a helicopter flying about 10,000 feet above Jefferson County, Colorado.
"It performed perfectly and did exactly what our team designed it to do," said Col. Jim Voss, a retired NASA astronaut and Sierra Nevada's vice president of space exploration systems.
Perhaps many folks who don't closely follow the space industry are completely unaware of this sleek orbiter.
Like NASA's shuttle, Dream Chaser is reusable. It's also got wings that allow it to fly back to Earth. But it's a lot smaller. Unlike the shuttle, it's designed to blast off on top of an Atlas V rocket, carrying up to seven astronauts to the orbiting space station.
Then, if everything goes as planned, the thing is supposed to use its onboard rockets to cross into the atmosphere and land on a conventional runway.
Among the several firms competing to be NASA's new astronaut taxi, Dream Chaser is the only system with wings, according to Sierra Nevada.
Why aren't more people aware of Dream Chaser? "We're pretty quiet as a company," Voss said. Sierra Nevada develops special aircraft for the Defense Department and devices for communication and intelligence gathering, Voss said. "Because of that, I think the company has just not felt like it has needed to do a bunch of advertising."
A few quick Dream Chaser tidbits:
Dream Chaser is just one of several systems being developed by private firms in hopes of winning additional NASA funding.
Also in the mix with Sierra Nevada and SpaceX is Boeing, which is developing a spacecraft of its own - a capsule-based vehicle called CST-100, which it tested in a Nevada helicopter drop last month. Capsules are less complicated than a winged craft, but they have fewer landing options. To deal with that, SpaceX plans to develop a capsule that can land with rockets.
"I don't know if you'd call it a space race," Voss said. "But we're the only competitors with a vehicle that will physically fly back to runway, so we think we're in a good position to provide the type of transportation that NASA will want for their crews."
More than a few data-head aerospace engineers acknowledge they have a romantic soft-spot for a winged spacecraft so reminiscent of NASA's shuttle.
So what's the next giant leap for Dream Chaser? Autonomous flight.
This August or September, Voss said, they'll drop the spacecraft from a powerful helicopter above California's Edwards Air Force Base.
Perhaps a military CH-46 Sea Knight or CH-47 Chinook might be brought in to let Dream Chaser spread its wings from as high as 20,000 feet. If all goes well, this bird will fly on its own for the first time, before it glides to a landing.
So what do you think? Is Dream Chaser going to follow NASA's shuttle and become the next generation's icon for U.S. space travel?
Or will a capsule-based system like SpaceX's or Boeing's win the race?
Or perhaps you think all of this is a giant waste of time, money and effort. Share your thoughts by writing a comment below.