via NASA/Ken Ulbrich
With SpaceX dominating headlines as it steadily progressed towards manned flights in its Dragon spacecraft—the company’s latest triumph was a test of the parachute system last week—it’s easy to forget that there are other companies working with NASA to restore America’s manned launch capabilities.
One such player is the Sierra Nevada Corporation. SNC’s Dream Chaser breaks the mold of what we’re used to seeing as spacecraft, and this week the company announced that its first orbital test flight will launch on November 1, 2016.
Though the mission is almost three years away, Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, is understandably excited. “SNC is thrilled to be the first company to confirm a launch date for our country’s return to orbital human spaceflight and the restart of human spaceflight operations from Florida’s Space Coast,” he said.
On launch day, an Atlas V rocket will send the Dream Chaser into orbit from NASA’s launch facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The spacecraft will land at NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility, the airport/spaceport on Merritt Island the space shuttle used during the program’s three decade run. It will be an automated, unmanned test, but still an important step towards the return of America’s manned launch capability. And if this mission goes well, the Dream Chaser will be cleared for manned flights beginning in 2017.
The Dream Chaser isn’t like the spacecraft we’re used to seeing. Both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 are capsule-style spacecraft, a staple of manned spaceflight since the Apollo era designed to fall from orbit and splashdown in the ocean or land on land.
The Dream Chaser conducted its first test flight and landing run by automated systems last October, and while the glide and approach looked great, landing gear troubles marred the landing. No one said building a spacecraft is easy.
The Dream Chaser is a lifting body. Less than 30 feet long and 23 feet across, it’s a sort of wingless mini-shuttle with flipped up rear fins, aerodynamically designed to generate lift during atmospheric reentry such that an astronaut at the helm can fly it to a smooth, runway landing. It may sound like the space shuttle, but there’s a key difference in the mission: how it’s launched. Much smaller than the shuttle, the Dream Chaser will launch on top of the Atlas V, not strapped to its side. It’s an arrangement reminiscent of the Air Force’s unflown Dyna-Soar space plane.
But like the space shuttle, the Dream Chaser is a reusable spacecraft. As part of this upcoming orbital mission, Sierra Nevada will use the Operations and Checkout facility at NASA’s Kennedy Spaceflight Centre both for launch preparation and post-flight hardware testing to ready the vehicle for its next flight. Using these long established facilities at the Cape, SNC is hoping to to ultimately shorten turn-around time between launches, speeding up the frequency with which manned missions can launch.
News of the pending launch comes on the heels of an announcement last week that the company has passed another major milestone: the Certification Plan Review for the entire Dream Chaser system, which represents Milestone 7 under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (or CCiCap) agreement and 70 percent completion of its contract with NASA.
This milestone saw SNC and NASA review the overall certification strategy as well as all verification and validation activities for Dream Chaser, including the Atlas V rocket and the ground and mission support systems. On reaching this point, Sirangelo commented that “the completion and validation by NASA of Milestone 7 is a major step in leading us to our first crewed, orbital flight of the Dream Chaser Space System.”
If everything goes according to plan and the Dream Chaser takes off, it will be the only reusable, lifting-body, runway-landing-capable, man-rated commercial spacecraft in the world. It will also bring America’s manned spaceflight program back to the forefront after the end of the shuttle program.