Dream Chaser ETA heads to Dryden for drop tests

by Chris Bergin

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have shipped their Dream Chaser ETA (Engineering Test Article) to the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. The vehicle will be prepared for a series of drop tests, a key Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) milestone.

Dream Chaser’s road trip to California:

SNC are one of the three companies who won through to the next stage of NASA’s commercial crew program, following their $212.5 million Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative award back in August, 2012.

The Agency’s initiative is a competition, with Dream Chaser facing off against two capsules – namely SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 – ahead of a down-select that will select which spacecraft will return a domestic crewed launch capability to the United States.

Both Dream Chaser and CST-100 have opted to use the reliable Atlas V as their launch vehicle.

With NASA refocused on Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration goals, the keys to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) have been handed over to the commercial sector – with the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts already resulting in two cargo official CRS resupply missions via SpaceX’s Dragon to the ISS.

Orbital – via their Cygnus spacecraft – are set to follow, with a debut COTS run to the ISS likely in September,following the successful test flight of the Antares launch vehicle.

Dream Chaser at the ISSUnfortunately – and through no fault of the commercial partners – there is a large amount of pressure on the funding outlook for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, with the first flight of NASA astronauts to the ISS on a commercial spacecraft continually slipping as a result.

The latest slip pushed the US Crew Vehicle -1 (USCV-1) mission to a planning date of November 30, 2017.

Regardless, the commercial partners are pressing on through their CCiCAP milestones, with SNC no exception as they move towards the major milestone of drop tests via their Dream Chaser ETA.

Dream Chaser in the air, via L2The ETA has already flown, via the Captive Carry test near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan airport, lofted on the end of a tether by a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter back in May of last year.

Following that milestone, the ETA underwent preparations for its shipping to California.

However, L2 sources noted the trip was delayed after SNC decided to remove the vehicle’s seven Actuator Control Units (ACU) that are responsible for moving the flight surfaces. SNC did not immediately respond to questions from NASASpaceFlight.com to clarify the problem with the ACUs.

Dream Chaser before the modifications, via L2The issue has since been resolved to the point SNC are able to carry out the May shipping to Dryden. The ETA kitted out with all the required data gathering equipment that will provide vital information during the drop tests.

Ahead of the road trip to Dryden, the ETA saw her wings and rudder removed, before being shrink-wrapped – not unlike how Atlantis was protected during the construction of her exhibition –  ahead of being placed on a transportation frame for the truck ride.

Dryden preparations will include final work on installing her new ACUs, along with a series of tow, control, and brake tests on the runway.

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Depending on how the testing proceeds, the first drop test could be as soon as early June – but more likely to be sometime later in the summer.  The drop will be via a helicopter, and carried out early in the morning, in near darkness, before the Californian weather becomes too warm to fly the helicopter at the altitudes required for the testing.

Dream Chaser Model, via L2It is also understood, via L2 source information, the first two Dream Chasers – the ETA and the FTA (Flight Test Article) – have been given internal and external names.

SNC did not immediately respond to NASASpaceFlight.com on the naming of their ships, but it is understood the ETA may receive the public name of “Eagle”, pending the official approval of management.

Dream Chaser arrives in California after recently completing its first major, comprehensive safety review.

Atlas V and Dream Chaser on the padThe Integrated Systems Safety Analysis Review provided NASA with hazard reports and safety and reliability plans for the major components of the company’s integrated crew transportation system, including the Dream Chaser spacecraft, United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and flight and ground systems.

“Dream Chaser is making substantial progress toward flight with the help of our NASA team,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC’s Space Systems.

“The ability to openly exchange information through the work on these CCiCap milestones is invaluable for many reasons, such as communicating Dream Chaser development plans and receiving timely feedback from NASA, all of which help to improve our design and maximize safety and reliability.

“As we begin our flight test program we have a better and stronger program due to our partnership with NASA.”

(Images via SNC, L2 and Lee Jay Fingersh/NASASpaceflight.com)

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