As was promised, NASA is not abandoning Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and its Dream Chaser vehicle, despite the spaceplane losing out on the lucrative Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) award last year. An agreement has been was reached for SNC to continue to work with NASA through to the Critical Design Review (CDR) level of maturity for the vehicle.
With a heritage ranging back to NASA Langley’s HL-20 spaceplane concept from the 1980s, Dream Chaser is a vehicle that can utilize cross-range capability and land on a conventional runway.
That “dissimilar redundancy” – when compared to her capsule rivals – won its fair share of admirers, with many experts believing the spaceplane and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 were the most likely duo to win through to the CCtCAP stage of NASA funding.
However, the $6.8 billion award to SpaceX and Boeing saw Dream Chaser missing out, resulting in layoffs at SNC and a bleak future for the vehicle.
Although a protest against the CCtCAP decision was lodged and subsequently thrown out, SNC continued to promote the vehicle for other uses.
While numerous associations with overseas space agencies and commercial partners continue to be evaluated, SNC has since officially announced their cargo variant of the Dream Chaser for NASA’s CRS2 bid process.
SNC revealed a Dream Chaser Cargo System that has a folded wing design to fit inside a standard fairing for multiple launch vehicles.
SNC continues to work with NASA via the final Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) milestones, although it was uncertain as to how long that work would continue.
Ahead of the CCtCAP award, NASA promised it wouldn’t “abandon” the company that was to miss out on the CCtCAP award. Per Monday’s announcement, that promise appears to have been kept.
The agreement points to an amendment to its current Space Act Agreement (SAA) arrangement, adding a “significant development milestone” to the CCiCap partnership with NASA.
The continuation of the partnership will see the association with NASA extended through to March 2016 – via the addition of Milestone 41, specifically titled “Design Analysis Cycle-6 Closeout Review”.
This additional milestone will allow SNC to demonstrate the advancement of the Dream Chaser Space System design from a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) level of maturity toward a Critical Design Review (CDR) level.
While there isn’t any additional funding from this new agreement, SNC notes it is pleased they will have the support of NASA through to next year – in turn aiding the vehicle’s maturity as they compete for the CRS2 award.
“We are eager to continue our work with NASA on development of the Dream Chaser Space System and appreciate NASA’s continued support of our program,” noted Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president, SNC’s Space Systems.
“Agreeing to extend the SAA is recognition by NASA of the unique value of the Dream Chaser lifting-body vehicle. As the only runway-landing, piloted space vehicle in development, Dream Chaser provides the opportunity to preserve the U.S. legacy of 30 years of space shuttle and lifting-body experience.
“The continued agreement and addition of the Closeout Review milestone ensures the entire Dream Chaser Space System continues its path forward to CDR maturation.”
The agreement may also result in confirmation SNC will send the Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article (ETA) on a second trip to California for another free flight test.
While the first flight test, conducted in 2013, is still best known for the landing gear failure, it was ultimately a hugely successful test, proving the vehicle could fly, and fly well – something that could only be confirmed via a full-scale flight.
While the ETA has undergone repairs following her Californian tumble, there were fears SNC wouldn’t be able to financially justify a second free flight test after losing out on the CCtCAP funding.
The second test is still technically an objective of the CCiCAP process, although most of the free flight data was successfully gathered during the initial test, achieving a green light on the NASA milestone checklist.
Fully completing all of the CCiCAP objectives, in addition to the newly installed Design Analysis Cycle-6 Closeout Review milestone, would place SNC in a good position not only with NASA for the CRS2 considerations, but also with the numerous partners they are continuing to work with.
SNC are still working reviews with the Stratolaunch Systems team for a subscale version of the Dream Chaser that could fly missions from the giant aircraft carrier system.
Such an arrangement would result in a good amount of synergy between the two companies, utilizing a runway – such as the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), for both the start and conclusion of missions.
An agreement to land all versions of the Dream Chaser at Ellington Airport near Houston was also revealed this week.
SNC also recently announced it has completed an initial study for the Dream Chaser for European Utilization (DC4EU) concept, co-funded by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and OHB.
What is now certain is Dream Chaser will at least live on into 2016.
(Images: L2 Content, SNC and NASA)
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