It takes just a couple of minutes for the spaceship Dream Chaser to glide gently down to earth at Cape Canaveral.
Like its NASA predecessor, the mini Space Shuttle, in development by the U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation, was designed to bring astronauts, equipment and payloads safely back to earth.
In the future such rockets may zoom from space straight to a quiet corner of northeastern Germany.
SNC is developing the space vehicle in collaboration with the European Space Agency, or ESA. Its mission will be to supply the International Space Station (ISS), repair satellites and remove space debris.
According to studies by the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, the spacecraft, launched in the United States, could land at airports in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. With its light air traffic and low population density, the state would be an ideal landing site.
The Dream Chaser is considerably smaller than the Space Shuttle and can land on conventional runways equipped to handle jumbo jets.
The location would benefit the scientific community, because sensitive research material could be brought to German laboratories quickly, without running the risk of tissue samples, for example, being adversely affected by hours or days of shipping. "Scientists could finally measure the direct influence of space on living cells in their own laboratory," said Jürgen Drescher, head of the DLR office in Washington, D.C.
There have already been initial talks with the state government and management of the Rostock-Laage airport, who are not opposed to the idea.
The DLR is now trying to convince the German government and ministries to create the necessary legal framework, since commercial space transport is not permitted in Germany at this time.
SNC is a space travel and technology pioneer in the United States. With annual sales of $2 billion, the company has already been awarded many contracts by NASA and the Pentagon. According to SNC officials, the company has already invested half a billion dollars in development of the Dream Chaser.
However, the project received a setback a few months ago, when NASA did not select the vehicle to transport astronauts to the ISS in the future, opting for competing bids from Space X and Boeing instead, which manufacture manned capsules for travel into space. SNC is now pinning its hopes on the NASA contract for the commercial transport of materials to the ISS, which hasn't been awarded yet.
SNC has also shifted attention to Europe. DLR, Germany's aerospace center, and the European Space Agency signed a "technical agreement" with SNC more than 16 months ago, and there are indications that a long-term agreement could be concluded soon.
If Germany is chosen as a landing site, the DLR wants the landing rights. Other countries, like Spain, the United Kingdom and Sweden, are already funding their own "space ports," partly with European Union money.
But because Germany, as an ESA partner country, paid a large share of the European contribution to the ISS, it should be given top billing as a potential landing site. An airport like Rostock-Laage could be given the necessary upgrades without incurring significant costs. The Dream Chaser is considerably smaller than the Space Shuttle and can land on conventional runways equipped to handle jumbo jets. The craft could then be returned to Florida's Cape Canaveral by ship for the next launch.
Mr. Drescher, the head of DLR's Washington office, pointed out the potential benefits of a German landing site. Commercial landings of spacecraft would not only improve the infrastructure, he explained, but would also attract a great deal of attention to Germany and, as has been the case in the United States, would inspire young people to study engineering, science and math. The program could also create the necessary conditions for a nascent space tourism industry.
"Accessing space creates new markets," Mr. Drescher said. "For Germany, as a country of ideas, it's time for us to think about the economic and scientific use of our investment."
Video: Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Space Shuttle Comes Together.
Thomas Jahn is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in the United States. To contact the author: [email protected]