By Eric M. Johnson and Joey Roulette
SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sierra Nevada Corp, a privately owned defense contractor with spaceflight ambitions, said on Wednesday it picked United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket to launch its Dream Chaser space plane on cargo missions to the International Space Station.
Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) is one of three companies hired by NASA, the U.S. space agency, to re-supply the orbiting research laboratory under a $14 billion overall award that guarantees each company a minimum of six flights between 2019 and 2024.
The other companies are Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, and Northrop Grumman.
SNC's Dream Chaser, which resembles the long-retired Space Shuttle, is slated to blast off from Florida's Cape Canaveral in late 2021 aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket being built by United Launch Alliance - a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp. Dream Chaser will land like a conventional airplane at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, though Sierra Nevada says it is has been developed to land on conventional airport runways.
The Dream Chaser will be capable of delivering 12,000 pounds of food, water, science experiments and other cargo to the space station, the company said.
In adding SNC as a contractor in 2016, NASA gave the Sparks, Nevada-based firm a major financial and public relations boost after NASA selected rival spacecraft by Boeing and SpaceX to carry astronauts between Earth and the space station.
SNC, owned by Turkish immigrants and billionaires Eren Ozmen and her husband, Fatih, is part of a group of closely held companies aiming to steal market share from space industry incumbents. The company makes most of its money by modifying and integrating aviation equipment into existing aircraft and by selling drones and other technology, primarily to the U.S. Air Force.
SNC declined to disclose how much it was paying ULA for the launches.
SNC chose United Launch Alliance over providers from Europe, Japan and the United States, including SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Ozmen told reporters after announcing the launch agreement, confirming earlier Reuters reporting.
Representatives from SpaceX and Blue Origin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
United Launch Alliance is working toward a first flight of its heavy-lift Vulcan in spring 2021, the same year Bezos aims to fly the New Glenn.
United Launch Alliance could use its operational Atlas V rocket as a "backup" to launch Dream Chaser, ULA's chief executive, Tory Bruno, told reporters. "We're on time with Vulcan, but if something should arise, we're going to make sure that you fly when you're ready," Bruno said.
SNC argues that the Dream Chaser's ability to land on a traditional runway gives it an edge over rival solutions for delicate scientific research cargo.
SpaceX's Dragon capsules currently splash down in the Pacific Ocean, while Northrop's Cygnus capsules burn up as they fall through the atmosphere, which gives NASA an opportunity to remove trash from the station.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in San Francisco and Joey Roulette in Washington; editing by Leslie Adler)