The lifting body concept – made famous by the Space Shuttle and now living on with Dream Chaser – will provide NASA with the necessity of diversity, according to Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative award winner Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), who have promoted the advantages of having a reusable, low G-force, runway return vehicle.
Dream Chaser Likes To Be Different:
As announced earlier this month, SNC’s Dream Chaser was one of three vehicles selected by NASA for their follow-on to the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) process.
The additional award of $212.5m award will allow Dream Chaser to progress close to the Critical Design Review (CDR) stage of development, after already passing the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) earlier this year – per its CCDev-2 milestones.
Dream Chaser is joined by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft – launched via its Falcon 9 ride to orbit, and Boeing’s CST-100, which, like Dream Chaser, will be lofted uphill by a human-rated United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. Notably, both of Dream Chaser’s “competitors” are capsules.
Birthed from the HL-20 lifting body vehicle, SNC partnered with the Langley Research Center (LaRC) via a five year partnership that focused on the evolution and substantiation of the Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle. Added to the heritage of the Space Shuttle, SNC’s believe their baby orbiter is capable of continuing the legacy.
“(The award) is a very strong validation of the concept we have with the Dream Chaser, which is a lifting body concept, taken from the 135 flights of the Shuttle and the many years of work that has been done on lifting bodies,” said Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President and head of SNC’s Space Systems via a teleconference interview (full recording available on L2).
“We are now the only lifting body in the fleet, and it’s our belief – as also noted by NASA people – that the Agency is seeking diversity via the launch vehicles and spacecraft, so having both a lifting body and capsules in the fleet is a very strong way to go.”
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NASA’s primary CCiCAP aim is for the commercial vehicles to regain domestic crewed access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), specifically to the International Space Station (ISS).
However, due to the limited amounts of funding, the Agency has been forced to make some difficult decisions via the down-selection process, resulting in numerous suitors – who offered to help remove the dependence on the Russians – unable to use NASA funding to develop their vehicles.
It is possible NASA managers will have to eventually down-select to just one overall winner for the future contract to launch American astronauts to the ISS in the second half of this decade. Should that become the scenario, the ultimate decision will have to weigh up numerous pros and cons between the contenders, potentially leading to a capsule versus lifting body showdown.
In promoting the advantages of Dream Chaser’s fundamental design, Mr Sirangelo pointed to the quick and safe return of downmass – be it an injured crewmember, or a critical science payload, to a runway landing.
“Our lifting body has significant advantages, such as the ability to return crew and critical cargo from the ISS in a matter of hours to a runway landing on a very low G-force return.
“The Space Station is supposed to be a laboratory, not only an observatory – where there is some tremendous work already being done.
“So being able to safely return that work is a key criteria in a lifting body, runway landing vehicle.”
Also a legacy of the Shuttle fleet, the ability to reuse Dream Chasers, as many times as the Shuttle orbiters, was cited as an advantage over the capsule design.
This in turn could lead to Dream Chasers gaining their own individual names – although SNC have said they are still considering that option.
“We also see the advantages in the fact our vehicle is highly reusable,” added Mr Sirangelo.
“The Shuttle orbiters had an average of 27 flights across the fleet, with a high of 39 for Discovery. We are expecting the same type of high reusability for the Dream Chaser.
“We think it will play out that the advantage of a lifting body will prove it to be very versatile, capable of a long life with many missions.”
SpaceX have noted their Dragon spacecraft can be reused, although they have also confirmed that – for their Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA at least – the current plan is to use a new vehicle for each mission.
SNC also believe that Dream Chaser will prove to be attractive to several other markets, other than to the ISS, further increasing the vehicle’s commercial viability. However, Mr Sirangelo opted not to mentioned specifics in relation to the non-ISS markets.
What is certain is another key element of NASA’s commercial crew program, to launch and return American astronauts, from the United States, on American built vehicles.
“We want to bring American jobs back home,” noted Mr Sirangelo.
“We should be flying Americans on American vehicles built in America and create those jobs here. We need to take down the ‘help wanted’ signs in Russia and bring them back here to fill some of those jobs in the States.”
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