Europe Wants a Dream Chaser, the New Reusable Spaceplane

After being awarded a commercial resupply contract from NASA, Dream Chaser solidifies its ties with the European Space Agency.

2016 is shaping up to be a great year for Dream Chaser, the slick reusable spaceplane currently being developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

For starters, NASA just awarded the company with a commercial contract to ferry cargo—and eventually astronauts—to and from the International Space Station. SNC will now be stacked up against SpaceX and Orbital ATK in NASA's delegation of ISS resupply missions to the private sector.

However, it turns out that NASA is not the only organization that has been crushing on Dream Chaser. The European Space Agency (ESA) has also been eyeing this compact spaceplane. In the wake of the new NASA contract, ESA has also committed to contributing 33 million Euros (or $36 million) towards chasing the Dream Chaser dream.

There are a number of reasons why the spaceplane has attracted so much attention around the world, not the least of which is style. Dream Chaser is a futuristic-looking, scaled down version of the retired Space Shuttle. As such it's designed to ride rockets into orbit, then return to Earth for a runway landing.

But where the Space Shuttle vehicles stood 184 feet tall, Dream Chaser is a much sleeker model measuring only 30 feet from nose to rear. Its smaller size enables it to ride atop rockets rather than strapped to the side. These differences, along with the use of less volatile, ethanol-based fuel, will theoretically make SNC's spaceplane a lot safer and more reliable than the shuttle. Moreover, the fact that Dream Chaser is reusable makes it a cost effective solution for long term manned and unmanned space exploration, as well as a competitor to SpaceX's reusable launch system.

With that in mind, it is no wonder that a partnership between ESA and SNC has been percolating for a few years—a great example of the rapid diversification of 21st century space exploration along both multinational and public/private sector lines.

In late 2013, Germany's aerospace agency looked into the idea of a "Europeanized" riff on Dream Chaser, which could be used both for ISS transport, but also for other specialized projects, like recovering broken satellites from high orbits. The two entities cut a deal, with ESA agreeing to take charge of the funding and construction of Dream Chaser's docking mechanism. Given that the spaceplane's main task will be delivering supplies to the ISS by docking with its ports, this mechanism is a crucial component.

The project atrophied for a few years because NASA repeatedly passed over Dream Chaser when handing out commercial resupply contracts. Now that Dream Chaser is a go with NASA, its European counterpart is also back on the figurative launchpad.

Animation of launch procedures. Video: SNCspacesystems/YouTube

The next phase is still being hashed out, but the general plan is for ESA to maintain responsibility for the docking component of Dream Chaser, and to eventually develop its own fully fledged model. This alternate version would be modified to have nifty folding wings in order to be compatible with the Ariane rocket family, ESA's workhorse launch vehicle.

"There is a memorandum of understanding not only with ESA and SNC, but also between SNC and some of the other national space agencies [in Europe]," said Johann-Dietrich Woerner at a press briefing, according to SpaceNews.com. "These are looking at different technologies, coming from Europe, to be used in Dream Chaser, as well as using Dream Chaser for European purposes such as microgravity research."

International cooperation is par for the course when it comes to large spaceflight projects, but the emerging collaboration between SNC and ESA demonstrates the growing interconnectedness of the public and private sectors around the world. When a concept as flashy as the Dream Chaser comes along, it can grab the attention of its own federal space agency, while also establishing an overseas franchise.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Dream Chaser was scheduled to take its maiden flight in November 2016. Sierra Nevada Corporation has informed the author that in fact, there is no set launch date at this time.