NASA

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser cargo vehicle connects with the International Space Station in this NASA rendering. Madison-based Orbitec will provide some of the key equipment for the spacecraft, chosen by NASA on Thursday for a series of cargo flights.

Orbitec — the Madison company known for building the greenhouse that let astronauts eat fresh lettuce in space — will have something extra to celebrate when it holds its belated holiday party next week.

NASA has chosen Sierra Nevada Corp., Orbitec’s parent company, as one of three companies that will send cargo shuttles to the International Space Station between 2019 and 2024.

The contract is worth up to a combined $14 billion for the three companies and their partners.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser will fly at least six cargo delivery missions to the space station. The reusable spacecraft has been in development for more than 10 years.

“This is an awesome time for Orbitec,” spokesman Paul Zamprelli said. “Our team has worked very long and hard on the Dream Chaser vehicle for Sierra Nevada Corp., providing state-of-the-art space solutions for this historic vehicle.”

Orbitec will produce the environmental control system that handles air and heat inside the Dream Chaser and rocket engine thrusters that will propel and steer the vehicle in space, Zamprelli said.

“We are extremely proud of the rocket engine development for Sierra Nevada that was started in Madison and tested in our large engine test site at the (former) Badger Ammunition Depot” near Baraboo, he said.

Orbitec also will make a deluxe version of the VEGGIE plant growth unit that astronauts on the International Space Station used to grow their own lettuce last summer. The expanded greenhouse will likely offer more variety.

“We can grow most everything in VEGGIE. The only restriction we have is tall plants ... such as corn. NASA is busy working on dwarf vegetables to solve these type issues,” Zamprelli said.

In a telephone news conference with reporters on Friday, Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems division, declined to say how much money will go to the company from the NASA contract or how many more employees will be hired, either for Sierra Nevada or its partners.

Acquired a year and a half ago, Orbitec is “an excellent addition” to Sierra Nevada, Sirangelo said. “It’s going to be a significant part of the growth that we’re doing here.”

The Madison company’s VEGGIE system, in particular, “has been producing significant value for us,” he said.

In September 2014, Sierra Nevada lost out on a huge contract with NASA to carry astronauts into space. The multibillion-dollar deal went instead to competitor SpaceX.

But in protesting that decision, Sierra Nevada learned more about what the space agency needed. The company redesigned its cargo system to eliminate weaknesses, Sirangelo said. “It really allowed us to become much stronger,” he said.

The newly designed Dream Chaser has folding wings that will let it fit inside a cargo plane to be flown to various airports for takeoff.

Sierra Nevada plans to build two of the spacecraft, which will be launched by Atlas rockets. Each will be ready to relaunch in about 60 days and can be used multiple times, Steve Lindsey, senior director of programs for Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, told reporters.

The Dream Chaser will be able to carry pressurized cargo to the International Space Station, dock and unload the supplies, and bring cargo such as “critical science experiments” back to Earth in a gentle landing, Lindsey said.

The vehicle’s thermal protection unit has been “dramatically” improved, Lindsey said, and there are no toxic chemicals on the Dream Chaser.

That means science experiments can be returned to researchers within hours of landing, for the first time since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011, he said.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled we are, as a team, to be part of this,” said Lindsey, a five-time shuttle commander.

Sirangelo said NASA is “probably most excited about these additional capabilities.”

With more science experiments, Orbitec expects more participation.

“We have major plans in this area to support the Dream Chaser in providing science equipment and capabilities for NASA and customers all over the world,” Zamprelli said.

“All our technologies will play a big part in the future of Dream Chaser and the other customers we are supplying.”

Sirangelo said NASA will not be the Dream Chaser’s only customer. “A key part of our strategy is to be able to take this beyond NASA, to make low-earth-orbit a destination ... for many, many purposes,” he said.

Founded in 1988, Orbitec, or Orbital Technologies Corp., has locations in Madison and Middleton.

It has won more than $150 million in government contracts since it was established.

Sierra Nevada, founded in 1963, has its headquarters in Sparks, Nevada, but its Space Systems business is based in Louisville, Colorado.

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Contact Judy Newman at jdnewman@madison.com with tips and story suggestions.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.