It also marks the beginning of a void in getting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station aboard an American spacecraft.
In the interim, NASA will pay the Russian space program to transport our astronauts to and from the space station.
"That is the alternative to going to space. Americans would fly on Russian spacecrafts for the foreseeable future. We think Americans should fly on American spacecraft built here," Mark Sirangelo, the head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said.
The company is involved in the development of a potential replacement spacecraft for the shuttle program: Dream Chaser. A winged spacecraft, the development of Dream Chaser began in 2004. While it has some visible similarities to the space shuttle, it also has differences.
"I think the primary differences are that we've had the benefit of 30 years of operational experience of the shuttle in our design. We've been able to update the whole approach of how you go to space," Sirangelo said. "One of the most obvious differences is we carry onboard propulsion. If one looks at the back of the vehicle we carry two rocket motors, which mean that we can abort to a landing on a runway from launch all the way through getting through orbit."
The retirement of the space shuttle program will mark a change in the way business is done in space. Private companies like Sierra Nevada Space Systems will own the low-Earth orbit spacecraft and make them available for a fee to commercial and government customers. The change will allow NASA to focus their attention on exploration of deep space.
"By us taking over the job of transporting things and doing things in low-Earth orbit, that frees up NASA to go to the next step and that next step could be Mars, it could be an asteroid, it could be something else," Sirangelo said.
Dream Chaser is scheduled for its first flight about a year from now when it will be dropped from another aircraft and landed. If all goes as planned, Dream Chaser will launch on an existing United Launch Alliance Atlas V vehicle for its first crewed mission in 2015.
(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)