There has been a company that I haven’t really touched on that I am really excited about. I am talking about the Sierra Nevada Corp. “Dream Chaser” space plane. This spacecraft was originally meant to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, but unfortunately NASA passed over this very sleek, and in my opinion the more sexy of the others back in 2014 as part of their Commercial Crew Transportation contract.
While the Dream Chaser resembles NASA’s retired Space Shuttle’s, it is a lot smaller. The shuttles were 122 feet long and had a wingspan of 78 feet, while the “Dream Chaser” is only 29.5 feet long and has a wing span of 22.9 feet. The design for the vehicle began in the 1990’s and is of the ‘lifting body’ design. While work in the 1990’s by NASA didn’t get too far, the Dream Chaser has gotten a lot of attention from European Space Agency (ESA) and it even has a flight on the books with the United Nations (UN).
The first version, the crewed vehicle, was part of a few companies in the running for NASA’s Commercial Crew contract that involved SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Boeing and Blue Origin. Dream Catcher was designed to carry a crew of seven to the International Space Station.
It was going to launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket with a two engine Centaur upper stage rocket to the International Space Station. Once at the Station, the space plane would drift and dock to the station with a docking module located in the rear of the craft. Although Sierra Nevada wasn’t chosen for NASA’s Commercial Crew operations, the space plane underwent a very visible test at Edwards Air Force Base in 2015. The test included a tow test to check out the landing gear, brakes and how the landing skid works on the runway. Then Dream Chaser was mounted below a helicopter and was released for a automated landing profile on Runway 22-L on October 26, 2013.
Dream Chaser glided for one minute in the lower atmosphere, but as the landing gear lowered, one of the landing gear doors didn’t fully open, precluding the landing gear to lower and the vehicle took a hard left upon touching down and tumbling into the sand. Mostly cosmetic damage was done and it was determined that if a crew was on board the craft, they would not have been harmed, in fact, a pair of fuzzy dice was still hanging from its spot in the front windows. After the test, the test article was taken back to its factory for refurbishments and modifications.
The test slated for the spring of this year will mirror the test from 2013 that will include a runway tow and one minute lower atmosphere automated landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Hopefully this test will conclude without a dramatic landing tumble, and will end successfully from beginning to end. This test will pave the way for meeting goals to meet NASA’s Commercial Resupply deadlines for certification to flight of the vehicle.
The version that will carry cargo only will look very similar, but the wings will be folded up because it will launch within a payload fairing (crewed version would fly with vehicle exposed to atmosphere during launch), and the wings will unfold once in space and the payload fairing is jettisoned. Just like the crewed version, the spacecraft will dock with the space station approaching rear first. This vehicle can carry 11,000 pounds of pressurized cargo and 1,100 pounds of unpressurized cargo to the International Space Station. Launches for the Dream Chaser will most likely begin in the second half of 2019 on top of an Atlas 5 launch vehicle. It is not known as of yet which variant of the Atlas 5 that will be used, meaning if none, 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 solid rocket boosters would be used. Just by me guessing, I would guess the 2 solid rocket booster variant would be used, although the baseline is the most used.
The cargo version of Dream Chaser allows it to fly on either the Atlas V (USA) or Ariane 5 (European Space Agency) launch vehicles. As stated previously, ESA is very interested in using the craft for and the UN already has a mission on the uncrewed version of the craft that will last approximately 2 weeks that will carry experiments and will not dock with the International Space Station, marking the first time a totally independent science mission will be flown by an American space vehicle since the ill-fated STS-107 mission aboard Columbia that lasted January 16-February 1, 2003. The other standalone shuttle flight was the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009.
I will write an article detailing the specs of this vehicle from top to bottom as soon as the free-flight test is completed.