10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

Sierra Nevada Space Systems
It must have been kind of hard for those folks to pay attention to NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Feb. 5, 2011, what with the Dream Chaser looming in the background. Photo courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls

Sierra Nevada Corp. has manufactured defense electronics since 1963 and has remained an American pack leader in fabricating small satellites [source: Chang].

Take the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada's planned commercial crew vehicle, which will ferry up to seven astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. The company hopes 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. As of September 2013, the Dream Chaser test article -- akin to the Enterprise vehicle used to test space shuttle flight performance -- had completed both tow tests and captive-carry flight tests, with a free-flight test planned for the near future [source: Sierra Nevada].

To negotiate the jump from small satellites to crewed spacecraft, Sierra Nevada assembled an industry dream team, with partners from Draper Laboratory; NASA's Langley Research Center; Boeing; and United Launch Alliance [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. Moreover, its hybrid rocket engines, which powered SpaceShipOne on its successful Ansari X Prize bid, also propelled SpaceShipTwo on its two successful supersonic test flights in 2013 [source: Norris].