The highly anticipated confirmation that Dream Chaser will be taking up residency at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was finally made public this week, albeit with a few welcome surprises. The “baby orbiter” will be processed in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) building, ahead of a “committed” debut launch atop of an Atlas V rocket in late 2016.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) are on an impressive drive towards enabling their Dream Chaser spacecraft to make her first trip into space.
Currently testing the Dream Chaser systems via the Engineering Test Article (ETA), the SNC team are successfully pushing through their Commercial Crew milestones under contract with NASA.
With a test schedule lined up and ready to be initiated by the ETA via her evolving upgrades from a Block 0, to the Block 0.5 and Block 1 vehicle, the next Dream Chaser – the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – is already under construction at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.
The OTV will provide Dream Chaser’s next leap forward, with a flight into space, atop of an Atlas V launch vehicle, with SNC confirming they have acquired the rocket, allowing for a target launch date of November, 2016.
“We are honored that Sierra Nevada Corporation has reserved a proven Atlas V to launch its first flight test in 2016,” noted Michael Gass, United Launch Alliance president and CEO. “With 42 successful missions spanning a decade of operational service, the commercially-developed Atlas V is uniquely qualified to provide launch services for the Crew Transportation System.
“Because Atlas is already certified by NASA to fly the nation’s most complex exploration missions, ULA is able to provide a wealth of flight data, design implementation, detailed system and sub-system analysis, qualification and certification documentation to support NASA certification of the Atlas V for human space flight.”
In a sign of SNC’s commitment to flying Dream Chaser in space, this launch is not understood to be subject to their Commercial Crew funding with NASA, with long lead procurements already lined up.
As such, the OTV Dream Chaser will debut on a flight of several orbits, prior to a landing on the West Coast. Financial details behind this commitment were not revealed.
The Path To Flight:
The continued synergy between the since-retired Shuttle fleet and the future Dream Chaser family is far more than just the similar appearance of the winged/lifting body spacecraft.
With a test program that marries the ETA with Shuttle Enterprise’s Approach Landing Tests (ALTs), along with numerous other associations with the Shuttle orbiters, Dream Chaser will also call the Kennedy Space Center her home.
It was thought that Dream Chaser would be processed in one of the former buildings used by her illustrious aunties, with three Orbiter Processing Facilities (OFPs) vacated by the famous spacecraft as they completed their Transition and Retirement (T&R) operations, prior to an honorable retirement.
KSC made no secret of their wish to see Dream Chaser in an OPF, producing slides via several “21st Century spaceport” presentations (L2) that portrayed an OPF with a fleet of four Dream Chasers in various stages of processing.
With OPF-3 changing call signs to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) to become the home of Boeing’s Commercial Crew contender, the CST-100, OPF-1 was soon snapped up by the US Air Force as the new home for their X-37B spacecraft.
OPF-2’s future could have allowed Dream Chaser to move in next door to her military neighbor, as was confirmed by Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement, to NASASpaceFlight.com’s Philip Sloss during the T&R phase.
“That could happen, sure. It depends on the nature of the different customers that are there. But we could come up with ways to keep them separated, so if we needed to have a secure location in OPF-1 versus OPF-2, we could set that up so that if you are badged to go into OPF-1, you can’t go into OPF-2.
“So that’s something we could work, and we have considered that given it’s most likely we’ll have two separate customers for those two bays.”
Interestingly, it has since been confirmed (L2) that OPF-2 was also acquired by the US Air Force, although details as to what they will use it for have not been publicly revealed.
SNC never openly showed favouritism towards using an OPF for their Dream Chaser fleet, only noting they were evaluating KSC facilities. Their main interest was in a clean floor environment.
“We’ve been in discussions with the Kennedy Space Center and Space Florida about facilities (at the spaceport),” noted Jim Voss, SNC director of advanced programs and program executive for Dream Chaser to NASASpaceFlight.com in 2012.
“An OPF may not be the ideal facility for our vehicle, because they have all the structures that were specific to the shuttle that would have to be removed. We need a large open area, because our vehicle is much more accessible than the Shuttle was, and we don’t need hazardous operations because of our non toxic propellants we have on-board.
“But we are looking at using a facility at KSC for our processing.”
With the famous O&C building now confirmed as the Dream Chaser’s processing facility, the deal makes a lot of sense, not least due to their arrangements with Lockheed Martin, who themselves moved into the O&C building to conduct processing on the Orion spacecraft.
As such, Dream Chaser’s new neighbor will be NASA’s new deep space vehicle, utilizing a clean floor space that will allow for horizontal processing and vertical integration with the adaptor that will allow for mating with the Atlas V launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41).
The announcement continues KSC’s transition towards its future role as a multi-user, 21st century spaceport. It is expected the initial expansion will create 200 jobs at the world famous space center.
“We have been diligent in our efforts, and I consider this a strong vote of confidence from a company that expects to be a major force in the future of human spaceflight,” added Bob Cabana, Kennedy Center director.
“Sierra Nevada Corporation will find in our workforce and facilities the same dynamic and professional people that have made successful missions from here for more than 50 years.”
Returning Home to the SLF:
The famous Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) was always likely to be selected as Dream Chaser’s port of call after completing her mission in space, adding yet more synergy between the Shuttle fleet and the new commercial vehicle.
Opened for operation in 1976, the 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide concrete runway was designed for hosting the return of Space Shuttle orbiters during its 30 year program.
It was Atlantis that marked the final Shuttle landing, when she completed her STS-135 mission by gliding into the SLF for a touchdown in the dark on July 21, 2011.
Discovery and Endeavour both left KSC via the SLF – atop of the SCA – en route to their retirement homes.
The SLF wasn’t an exclusive strip for Shuttle, with a range of aircraft using the runway – from Zero G flights, through to the arrival of satellites and hardware for processing ahead of their launches.
However, the future of the SLF has always targeted future commercial spacecraft, as part of KSC’s multi-user ambitions.
As such, NASA selected Space Florida, the aerospace economic development agency for the state of Florida, for negotiations toward a partnership agreement to maintain and operate the SLF. In turn, SNC have confirmed their use of the SLF as the primary runway for concluding their missions.
“(The) announcement by Sierra Nevada Corporation continues to verify a strong commercial interest in the SLF,” noted Space Florida President Frank DiBello. “It is clear that the future growth of commercial space is happening here in Florida and we couldn’t be happier to work with SNC to realize their Florida-based expansion goals.”
No stranger to the SLF is Steve Lindsey, SNC’s senior director and Dream Chaser program manager, who concluded his final Shuttle mission – STS-133 – with a sporty crosswind landing of Discovery three years ago.
“I had the privilege of piloting and commanding five Space Shuttle flights as a NASA astronaut. This included the last flight of Discovery which was processed, launched, and on March 9, 2011, made its final landing at the SLF after 39 flights and 148 million space miles,” the astronaut added.
“Mark (Sirangelo), the entire SNC Dream Chaser team, and I look forward to seeing Dream Chaser continue this legacy from Discovery when it flies in 2016.”
For approach to the SLF, Dream Chaser will be targeting a landing speed of 191 knots.
She will touch down on its two Main Landing Gear (MLG) just like the shuttle orbiters, although there will be one major difference when the nose is pitched forward, given the Dream Chaser will not be using a traditional Nose Landing Gear (NLG) wheel for its rollout.
Instead, an inbuilt skid strip will touch the concrete floor of the SLF.
Additional suitors of the SLF range from the suborbital – such as XCOR Aerospace – who were already understood to be close to arranging a deal to set up a base at KSC for the evolving versions of their Lynx suborbital spaceplane, along with Stratolaunch Systems, who show the use of the SLF in their notional simulation videos.
However, it’s the Dream Chaser that is now fully confirmed as targeting an approach and landing at the SLF, as much as it won’t be during the 2016 test flight, which will conclude at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
Dream Chaser is currently being repaired at SNC’s Colorado base, following her less than graceful landing during her debut free flight at Edwards Air Force Base last year.
The upgrade of the ETA will result in her changing call signs from the Block 0 to the Block 0.5.
A final Californian test will involve a crewed high altitude approach and landing in 2015, with the ETA upgraded to the final Block 1 configuration.
This upgrade will overlap with the final construction work on the OTV version of the Dream Chaser, the vehicle that will ride atop of an Atlas V for an uncrewed test flight into space in November, 2016.
“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,” added Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems.
“We could not have done this without the spirit and engagement from our national and state governments, the best aerospace companies in the industry, and several major universities, which all hail from over 30 states.
“Together these passionate people will return our astronauts to space on American spacecraft and rockets launched from America’s space coast right here in Florida.”
(Images via L2 – via the impressive DC section, *L2 members click here* – with additional images via SNC and Lee Jay Fingersh/NASASpaceflight.com)
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