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What the private sector has planned in outer space

Janet Kavandi - Sierra Nevada Corporation Executive Vice President in the Space Systems Group, joined Yahoo Finance to discuss what the private sector has planned in outer space.

Video Transcript

JEN ROGERS: I want to bring in Janet Kavandi. She is senior-- with Sierra Nevada Corporation, executive vice president in the Space Systems Group. And Janet, we were just looking-- we were talking about Jeff Bezos there. And I think when people think about space right now, a lot of people think about Bezos and Musk's SpaceX versus Blue Origin. And I think some people think it's a winner take all situation, one of these theories of what we're going to-- how we're going to be living in the future in space is going to win. Do you think that's true, or is there room for a lot of players here?

JANET KAVANDI: Oh, well, thank you very much for having me, and I do believe there's room for a lot of players here. Space is huge and infinite, of course. And so, there's plenty of room for a lot of different players. You're right that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have taken a lot of the headline news lately. They're famous for other reasons, and they get a lot of headline news. But there are a lot of other private companies out here, out there, that are working on space as well. So I believe that there's plenty of room for others to join.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You were once an astronaut, right? I mean, you have a long and very celebrated history with NASA. I saw this "60 Minutes" piece just yesterday where they talked about how Congress is funding the space launch system, which is really the Senate launch system, because why spend $6 billion or $8 billion for six years when you can spend $11 billion in 10 years-- delays, delays, delays. Your company has a reusable space transport system. And we don't hear a lot about it. So fill us in on the Dream Chaser.

JANET KAVANDI: OK, I'd be happy to. So the Dream Chaser is a space plane. It's the only commercially available space plane out there right now. You probably haven't heard about us too much because we haven't flown yet. We're due to fly in about a little over 18 months, 18 to 24 months. So you can see some imagery there. We have done a drop test.

And think of it as sort of a small version of a space shuttle. Those of you who are familiar with NASA space shuttle, crew member could go on board. They've been launched from a rocket, and then do their space missions in orbit and then come back and land on a runway, usually at the Kennedy Space Center, or sometimes at Edwards Air Force Base. And then once you land, the crewmembers just come down the walkway, down the stairs, and they're back on the tarmac. And that's it.

So, we don't use parachutes. We don't have the need to go splash in the ocean or splash-- there is no splash down with the space plane. It just comes back and lands on a runway. In fact, we could land on pretty much any runway in the United States or around the world that a 737 could land on, for instance. So, very commercially accessible, internationally as well as in the United States.

And in fact, we do plan on carrying cargo and crew for many countries in the future, as well as establish another commercial platform and low Earth orbit where this vehicle could go and carry crew and cargo. So as we all know, after the end of the ISS, International Space Station, what you see there, at the end of its natural life, there will need to be a new commercial platform that we transition to, and we hope to provide at least one of those platforms.

The cargo module there that you see burning up disposes of cargo and then this vehicle lands on the runway with the crew and the cargo that is meant to come back and be recovered, and especially the rocket cargo that absorb an impact of a hard landing.

JEN ROGERS: What is the timeline for all of this. I mean, I look at it. It's amazing. I'd like to see this all happening tomorrow, but are we talking 20 years, 30 years? Like, when is it?

JANET KAVANDI: All right, so yeah, that vehicle is actually in production right now. The first tail number is called Tenacity, and it is due to launch in the second half of 2022, so less than two years away. And then we will afterwards start working on the, well, the second tail number is already in production. And then we will also start working on the light habitat, which is an inflatable habitat that some of you may have seen similar to the one on the International Space Station today.

So we'll start production and hopefully launch that first inflatable habitat in 2026. And then put at least two modules together with a node and then transport the first hardware and the first workers to put that hardware into the Space Station hopefully by 2027, 2028, and be completely checked out and functional by the time the International Space Station is ready to retire.

ADAM SHAPIRO: There was a time in our lifetimes when SpaceX was a man's universe, but they even changed the Star Trek open where no one has gone before. How would you help us understand what it looks like today for women in the space industry?

JANET KAVANDI: Yeah, I think it's growing, the number of people that qualify now for space travel. So let's separate civil space from commercial space. For NASA space program, to qualify to be an astronaut, there's a very stringent selection process and physical requirements and educational requirements. And I had the honor of being the chair of the selection board in the past. So I know what it takes to get in there.

But over the years, having served on several boards, we see many, many more women joining the forces, the Astronaut Corps. And it's not easy to attain the qualifications. So now we're seeing fighter pilots who are women who have qualified in their military careers to now fly a vehicle such as the Dream Chaser or one of the other commercial vehicles. And women are achieving PhDs and going out and doing the more technical jobs in greater and greater numbers.

So it's much more common to see women apply now and be qualified for those jobs. So when I was chair of the board in 2013, that was the first time we were ever able to select 50% women and 50% men. And they asked for. So that was really cool.

JEN ROGERS: Janet Kavandi, so great to get a chance to talk with you, the Sierra Nevada Corporation. We will keep our eyes on all the work that you are doing. Thanks so much.