By this time next year, the Space Coast could see the launch of what looks like a mini space shuttle as Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser continues to come into focus.
For now, the Dream Chaser spacecraft, which is about 1/4th the size of the space shuttle orbiters, will be limited to cargo missions as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, which the company won in 2016.
It will join SpaceX and Northrop Grumman for bringing cargo to the International Space Station, but the company is already planning to build out a human-rated version that could become one of the players to launch crew to the ISS or other private space stations, including their own, this decade.
The first Dream Chaser is named Tenacity, and it has now undergone aeroshell and wing deployment system installation at the company’s headquarters in Colorado, shown in a time-lapse video posted to the company’s YouTube channel on Tuesday.
While construction continues, it also awaits the completion of its ride to the ISS, which comes in the form of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. When mated, Vulcan will take Dream Chaser to orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Dream Chaser will join SpaceX’s Dragon with the ability to return cargo to Earth while Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus module burns up in the atmosphere after the station is done with it.
Unlike Dragon, though, the Dream Chaser aims to land back at Kennedy Space Center at the former space shuttle landing facility now run by Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency. Dragon capsules land in the ocean and require boat transport back to KSC.
SpaceX Crew Dragon and eventually Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner have some cargo capacity as well, but their main goal is taking humans to and from the station, and neither will land as close to KSC as Dream Chaser, which is designed to glide back to a runway just like the space shuttles did.
“The Dream Chaser spaceplane is hands-down the best way home,” said SNC official Janet Kavandi. “A runway landing is the optimum solution for both humans and science.”
The spacecraft has been in the works for more than 13 years.
Go For Launch – Space News
Fix your telescope on all space-related news, from rocket launches to space-industry advancements.
Sierra Nevada became the first commercial user of Space Florida’s FAA Re-entry Site Operator License at the facility. The runway has been used for other reasons since 2011, including the landing of two of the Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane missions.
Under Space Florida, though, the runway will be used along with its support facilities during testing and landing, which will help Dream Chaser earn its FAA re-entry license, needed before its first ISS mission.
The vehicle has made successful drop tests outside of Florida from high altitudes to show its ability to land safely. Its next stop this year will be NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio for months of testing before heading to Kennedy Space Center.
This spring NASA updated its mission assignments under CRS-2, with more flights given to SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, but Sierra Space still assigned three flights. That number could grow. Sierra Space said it has a minimum of six flights to the ISS as part of the contract.
When it flies, it will be captured by the ISS’s robotic arm and then attached to the Harmony module, the same as Dragon and Cygnus.
The unmanned, 30-foot-long vehicle can deliver up to 12,125 pounds of supplies and can remain attached to the ISS and become an extension of the workable space. The roadmap calls for a crew version configuration with room up to seven crewmembers and supplies.
Sierra Space has partnered with Blue Origin to pursue a commercial space station called Orbital Reef, and the Dream Chaser could become an essential crew and cargo spacecraft for it.