Dream Chaser still fighting for her place in space
Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane is still holding on to the hope of flying missions for NASA despite losing out on the role of a Commercial Crew carrier for the Agency. Although little information has been heard about the future of the spacecraft of late, SNC is hoping to win favor from NASA in the upcoming award of the Cargo Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract.
When SNC lost out in NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract award decision – with the Agency opting to press forward with funding for SpaceX’s Dragon 2 and Boeing’s CST-100 (Starliner) – observers feared for the fate of the little spaceplane.
SNC’s immediate reaction was to release part of its Dream Chaser workforce, raising fears Dream Chaser would soon have her wings clipped.
However, SNC claimed it would press forward with their plans for the spacecraft that was never exclusively designed for transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
The forward plan involved finishing work under NASA’s CCDev-2 contract obligations while attempting to attract commercial customers and other space agencies into the fold.
“SNC has made the decision to continue the development of the Dream Chaser to flight, including a near-term bid on NASA’s CRS2 effort,” SNC noted after losing out on CCtCap funding, pointing to a potential cargo role for the vehicle – which is currently being served by SpaceX and Orbital via the ongoing – albeit interrupted – Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts.
The competitive nature between the space companies has always been an underlying theme, as seen with the internal naming (L2) of the Flight Test Vehicle (FTV) “Dream Chaser Ascalon” – the name of the lance or sword that Saint George used to “slay the dragon”. She was later given the name “Dream Chaser Ascension”.
However, SNC has never aimed to capitalize on the failures involving both of the current CRS partners, as much as SpaceX and Orbital are believed to be the current favorites to win the CRS2 awards.
Dream Chaser is no stranger to accidents herself, having taken a tumble off the Edwards Air Force Base runway during her first free flight test.
Although SNC has never released any footage of the Engineering Test Article (ETA) crash – likely to avoid mass media from misrepresenting the incident – L2 photos and video screenshots show the “baby orbiter” surviving the dramatic-looking crash with only cosmetic damage.
A testament to her safety parameters, an onboard crew would have walked away from the incident. Even Dream Chaser’s signature “flight deck fluffy dice” remained in place.
The ETA has since been repaired and should attempt another free flight as part of the CCDev-2 obligations.
On Wednesday, SNC noted they are aiming to conduct the second flight early in 2016 – while work continues on the orbital vehicle that is being constructed by Lockheed Martin.
“The SNC team is readying the ETA in order to begin the second phase of atmospheric flight testing early next year and our strategic partner, Lockheed Martin, is leveraging best practices in tooling and composites to manufacture the first orbital Dream Chaser spacecraft,” said Mark. N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president, SNC’s Space Systems.
“Both efforts have been ongoing simultaneously and we are very pleased with the progress to date. The Dream Chaser ETA is currently scheduled to arrive at Armstrong Flight Research Center in early 2016 in order to begin the second phase of atmospheric flight test.”
This time she will sport her own landing gear, as opposed to the gear taken from a military jet that proved to be the main root cause of the ETA’s bad landing when her port gear failed to deploy.
Winning the CRS2 contract would breathe new life into the Dream Chaser program, with SNC opting to promote its continued wish for that to become a reality via congratulating the United Launch Alliance (ULA) on its 100th launch of the Atlas V.
Dream Chaser and ULA have been working towards launching Dream Chaser on the Atlas V via its Commercial Crew aspirations. It has also been working towards cargo-only options via Concept Of Operations designs that show a Dream Chaser variant “folded” inside the large fairing on an Atlas V.
“We at SNC congratulate our friends at ULA, under the leadership of Tory Bruno, on achieving this unprecedented milestone for their organization,” noted Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president, SNC’s Space Systems.
“Providing reliable launch services is one of the most challenging endeavors in the aerospace industry and for an organization to achieve this level of success is a milestone that deserves to be celebrated. We’re proud of our long-standing, positive relationship with ULA and look forward to continuing to work together.
“When it became time to select a launch vehicle for the first orbital launch of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, we knew ULA’s commitment to mission success and proven track record were accomplishments that we wanted to align our program with.”
However, Dream Chaser isn’t tied to the Atlas V, with numerous alternative rocket options cited in documentation (L2) – albeit likely dated proposals based on the crew version of Dream Chaser – ranging from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 through to JAXA’s H-2 rocket.
A whole range of rocket options could be adapted to launching Dream Chaser into orbit, including the more recently publicized air-launch option. That option came to light following the Commercial Crew blow, where SNC announced it is looking to join forces with Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture.
This would involve a scaled version of the Dream Chaser to fly crewed and automated missions with the air launch carrier.
Such a system could also be utilized for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation.
It was even shown as part of an option to provide a fast-turnaround crew rescue option for the International Space Station (ISS) – although the orbital outpost would only require such a contingency in the event of a serious problem with its docked Soyuz spacecraft that provide the current escape route.
Other deals are in various stages of development, such as the Dream Chaser for Science, or DC4Science, concept. However, most deals appear to be mainly based around Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) style arrangements.
Dream Chaser requires real paying partners and customers to progress. Winning a contract via CRS2 would provide that much-needed push.
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