Sierra Nevada Corporation would almost certainly prefer that we not call its Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft a "chubby mini-shuttle," but come on, that's kind of what it looks like, right? NASA has just poured $212 million into the vehicle, which launches on top of an Atlas V rocket and could be in space by 2015.
Dream Chaser might look familiar to you space buffs out there: it's based on NASA's HL-20 lifting body concept vehicle from the 1980s. See here:
Like the HL-20, Dream Chaser isn't meant to be a full-on space shuttle replacement, even if it does share a similar operating principle. It's quite a bit smaller, and is intended to operate more like a business jet than a research vessel, ferrying up to seven people and a small amount of cargo up to the International Space Station (or elsewhere in orbit) in short-duration missions.
Dream Chaser launches just like SpaceX's Dragon capsule, stuck on top of a rocket. No separate fuel tank or boosters are necessary, making the entire system safer and cheaper. Once in orbit, the vehicle can dock with the ISS via an airlock at the back. To return to Earth, Dream Chaser deorbits just like the shuttle, relying on a protective belly to keep it safe during reentry through the atmosphere and using its lifting body design to fly to a landing on a conventional runway.
With this latest $212 million award from NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Space Act Agreement, Sierra Nevada should be able to conduct approach and landing drop tests later this year. The structure of a Dream Chaser prototype has already been completed, and at least in terms of required funding, Sierra Nevada is about halfway to having one of these things ready for orbit. Until then, satisfy yourself with some high-quality Dream Chaser porn in the gallery below.