Sierra Nevada Corporation, a private space company, announced today that its mini spacecraft Dream Chaser will launch into orbit next to the future Vulcan Centaur United Launch Alliance. Dream Chaser has not yet seen space, but when it starts working, it will help transport cargo and scientific experiments to astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2021-2024.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is one of three companies NASA commissions to periodically launch ISS to ensure that the station is fully stocked. Cargo missions are part of the NASA Commercial Resupply Services program, one of the few space agency initiatives that aims to relieve space transport to the private aviation industry. The other two companies participating in the program, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, are already bringing the load to the station since 2012. Thanks to the first round of contracts. But NASA awarded a second round of contracts in 2016, adding SNC to the pool of suppliers.
Developed since 2004, Dream Chaser resembles a miniature space shuttle. The plan is that the space plane flies into orbit vertically over the rocket and then meets the ISS. The astronauts on board the station will then use the robot arm to grab the spaceship and place it in an available docking port. When all the cargo they carry is unloaded and the mission is complete, the Dreamcatcher will separate from the ISS and then re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Unlike other space capsules, in which parachutes land, the Dreamcatcher will land similarly to an airplane, sliding horizontally onto the runway.
"This really provides a unique ability, unlike anything else available in the world today in the foreseeable future," said SNC president Fatih Ozmen at a press conference announcing the choice of Vulcan.
Initially, the company anticipated launching the Dream Chaser in the Atlas V ULA to transport astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA, and the team even received initial development funding from a space agency to work on a crewed vehicle. But NASA eventually awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts to send people to the space station. So SNC decided to convert the Dream Chaser to just carry the load, and the company is now tasked with running a total of 12,000 pounds of cargo during at least six supply missions for NASA. The company maintains that there is still the possibility of flying people on Dream Chaser in the future.
In fact, SNC maintains that Dream Chaser can transport people if absolutely necessary because it has some life support and temperature control systems. "Even today, in an emergency, you can bring people to earth if you had to," said John Curry, director of the Dream Chaser cargo mission program, during a press conference. "I'm not saying that NASA asked us to do this. I'm just saying that there is such a possibility. The bridge to the crewed vehicle is not so far away. "
SNC has other plans for Dream Chaser, including the launch of international cargo into space for the United Nations as early as 2021. But there is still a lot of work to be done before the Dream Chaser shoots up a volcanic rocket. First, Vulcan must start flying first. ULA has already started bending metal for the rocket, which comes from the already operating Atlas V rocket. But the first flight is to take place only in 2021. The Dreamcatcher will fly the second flight of Vulcan.
"I was a fan, supporter and cheerleader of this amazing vehicle from the first moment I saw it," said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA at today's press conference. "So the possibility of Vulcan's commercial debut with this Dream Chaser mission block is really exciting."
In the meantime, SNC has been testing the Dreamcatcher and performing a second free vehicle flight in 2017, showing that the spacecraft can successfully land from a very high altitude. The flight was much more successful than the first test in 2013, when the vehicle chassis failed and caused the spacecraft to slip off the runway during the touchdown. Further tests are planned for the coming years as SNC is preparing for the first launch of Dream Chaser.
Update August 14, 15:15 ET: This article has been updated with additional information from the SNC press conference.