Sierra Nevada Corporation is picking up the pace in its mission to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station using a next-generation spaceplane, with NASA giving its Dream Chaser vehicle the all clear following a design and performance review. This means the vehicle will now move into full production, with the developers hopeful of using it to ship goods to the orbiting laboratory within two years.
The development of the Dream Chaser space plane has been pretty eventful so far, with its first ever glide and test flight leaving the spacecraft upside down on the airstrip after its landing gear failed to deploy correctly. This led to a total refurbishment of the unmanned, reusable orbital vehicle, and then its first successful glide flight and landing in November 2017, some four years later.
NASA awarded Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser one of three private contracts to deliver cargo to the ISS in 2016, with SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus the other two recipients. Under NASA's CRS-2 contract the Dream Chaser will carry out at least six missions to the ISS, but it will work a little differently to its two fellow awardees.
The Dream Chaser is the only spacecraft of the three that is capable of runway landings, and is, at least theoretically, able to land at any large-scale commercial airport in the world. This particular capability has seen the Dream Chaser project draw strong interest from other space organizations, along with the UN.
Designed to be optionally piloted with autonomous launch, flight and landing capabilities, each Dream Chaser spaceplane is expected to be reused at least 15 times and be able to carry 5,500 kg (12,100 lb) of cargo to the space station each time. This could be basic but essential supplies like food and water, along with more delicate loads such as scientific samples. It can also retrieve up to 3,400 kg ( around 7,400 lb) of waste from the space station each time it departs before disposing of it by burning it up in the atmosphere.
As part of its preparation for these journeys, NASA's Integration Review 4 (IR4) had experts from the space agency and Sierra Nevada take a comprehensive look at the Dream Chaser design and how it performs with various components integrated into the vehicle. This led them to conclude that the space plane was ready to move into full-scale production.
"We are one step closer to the Dream Chaser spacecraft's first orbital flight," says Sierra Nevada CEO Fatih Ozmen. "This comprehensive review approved moving the Dream Chaser program into the production phase so we can get Dream Chaser to market as a critical space station resupply spacecraft as soon as possible. IR4 was a series of reviews, documentation, and data deliverables that are the culmination of many years of design work, analysis and development testing."
According to Sierra Nevada, a lot of the various components of the orbital vehicle have already been built, such as the thermal protection system tiles and avionics hardware, and the NASA approval now clears the way for these to be integrated into the vehicle at the company's facility in Louisville. Now moving onto full-scale production of the uncrewed Dream Chaser Plane and its cargo module, the company expects the spacecraft to start servicing the ISS in late 2020.
Source: Sierra Nevada