Consult your racing forms, ladies and gentlemen, because here comes the dark horse, gaining ground at the outside turn. Its bloodline is strong. Its sire, the thoroughbred Sierra Nevada Corp., has manufactured defense electronics since 1963 and, as of 2011, remained the American pack leader in fabricating small satellites [source: Chang].
Sierra Nevada's main brainchild is the Dream Chaser, a commercial crew vehicle for ferrying up to seven astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. The company hopes that the reusable mini-shuttle, which will launch via rocket and land like an airplane, will stake out a sizable plot of the space tourism and commerce real estate.
To negotiate the jump from small satellites to crewed spacecraft, Sierra Nevada has assembled a dream team: Draper Laboratory, an Apollo legacy organization with extensive experience in spacecraft guidance systems; NASA's Langley Research Center, whose inquiry into the Bor-4 Soviet design provided the basis for Dream Chaser; Boeing, with its long aeronautical and astronautical design legacy; and United Launch Alliance, maker of the Atlas V rocket that will carry Dream Chaser aloft [source: Chang].
Sierra Nevada must be doing something right: In 2010, the company netted $20 million out of an available $50 million in NASA funding for preliminary development; in 2011, NASA added another $80 million in second-round funding.
A good pedigree is well and good, but our next contestant has made bona fide space history -- and is aiming to do so again in 2012.