Sierra Nevada Corp. technicians prepare the Dream Chaser engineering test article for another round of atmospheric flight tests. Credit: Sierra Nevada
A prototype of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane is nearing shipment from the company’s space headquarters in Louisville, Colorado, to California’s Mojave Desert to resume runway landing tests as officials wait for word from NASA whether the company will win a competition to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.
The announcement from NASA, expected in early November, bears additional significance for Sierra Nevada after the space agency bypassed the Dream Chaser last year with its selection of Boeing and SpaceX to ferry crews between Earth and the space station.
“We as an industry, and we certainly as a company and Dream Chaser, have been predicted to die every year in the 11 years since I’ve been doing this, and so far, I’m still standing up here and talking,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division, at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
But Sierra Nevada put the Dream Chaser’s primary purpose — as a human-rated crew-carrying spaceship — on hold after the company lost last year’s commercial crew contract competition.
Sierra Nevada has agreements with the European Space Agency, Japan’s space agency and the German space agency to study how the Dream Chaser could fare in the international marketplace.
But the scope of that work is a sliver of the value of a NASA cargo award.
Sierra Nevada is up against NASA’s incumbent space station cargo transportation providers, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, and Boeing, which has proposed using its CST-100 crew capsule for supply runs. NASA originally envisioned selecting multiple winners in May, but now the award is slated for around Nov. 5, according to the agency’s website.
Engineers adapted the design of the Dream Chaser crew vehicle for exclusively cargo over the last 12 months, introducing a new concept with more autonomy, an expendable cargo module with solar arrays, and foldable wings to fit inside the nose cones of multiple types of boosters.
Sierra Nevada intended the crew version of Dream Chaser to launch without an aerodynamic fairing.
The test craft has been repaired and is being outfitted for flight at Sierra Nevada’s in Colorado, then it will be transported to California’s Mojave Desert. The upcoming test series, expected to begin in the first quarter of 2016, will use the Dream Chaser’s flight software program and include drop and tow tests at NASA Armstrong.
The cabin shell for the first space-worthy Dream Chaser has also rolled off the assembly line at Lockheed Martin’s aerospace plant in Fort Worth, Texas, Sirangelo said.
With stubby wings and a 30-foot length, the Dream Chaser is about one-fourth the size of a space shuttle orbiter. Its cargo variant could haul up more than 12,000 pounds — 5,500 kilograms — of equipment and experiments to the space station, according to Sierra Nevada.
The Dream Chaser cargo carrier could be ready for space missions by late 2018 or early 2019, he said.