The space industry is currently experiencing a new era of innovation and competition, with private companies creating and launching reusable spacecraft capable of carrying out different missions in low Earth orbit. One particularly promising and ambitious project is the Dream Chaser spaceplane, a winged vehicle that can be launched on a rocket, transport cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS), and land on a runway like an airplane.
The Dream Chaser is developed by Sierra Space, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corp., a leading aerospace and defense company. The Dream Chaser is scheduled to make its first orbital flight in 2024, after years of design, testing, and refinement. The Dream Chaser is the only spaceplane that has been selected by NASA to provide cargo services to the ISS under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, along with SpaceX’s Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus.
The Dream Chaser has several features and capabilities that make it unique and versatile. It has foldable wings that allow it to fit inside the fairing of a standard rocket, such as the Atlas V or the Vulcan. It has ceramic tiles that protect it from the extreme heat of reentry, similar to those used by the Space Shuttle. It has an environmental control system that provides life support and thermal management for the crew and the cargo. It has a docking mechanism that enables it to attach to the ISS or other spacecraft.
The Dream Chaser can also carry up to seven passengers and offer them a gentle landing experience, unlike the capsule-based spacecraft that rely on parachutes and splash down in the ocean or on land. The Dream Chaser can land on any runway that can accommodate a 737, which gives it more flexibility and accessibility. The Dream Chaser can also be reused up to 15 times, which reduces the cost and environmental impact of spaceflight.
The Dream Chaser is not a new concept, but rather the culmination of decades of work by NASA and the Air Force and others to try to figure out how to make a spaceplane work. The idea of a reusable spacecraft that can take off and land horizontally has been pursued since the 1950s, but it has faced many technical and financial challenges. The Space Shuttle was the first and only operational spaceplane, but it was retired in 2011 due to its high cost and risk. Other spaceplane projects, such as the X-33, the X-37, and the Skylon, have been either canceled, delayed, or classified.
The Dream Chaser is the result of a collaboration between Sierra Space and NASA, which provided funding and technical support through the Commercial Crew Development and the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programs. The Dream Chaser is also based on a NASA design called the HL-20, which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s as a potential crew rescue vehicle for the ISS. Sierra Space acquired the rights to use the HL-20 design in 2004 and modified it to meet the current requirements and standards.
The Dream Chaser is not only a cargo and crew transport vehicle, but also a platform for various applications and opportunities in space. Sierra Space envisions the Dream Chaser as a game-changer that will revolutionize access to space and provide new possibilities for exploration, tourism, and research. The Dream Chaser can deploy and retrieve satellites, perform scientific experiments, host commercial and educational payloads, and even land on the Moon or Mars with some modifications.
The Dream Chaser is like a Swiss Army knife, according to John Curry, director of space systems at Sierra Space. It can do so many things in space that no other vehicle can do. It can dock, it can berth, it can deploy satellites, it can retrieve satellites, it can land on the Moon, it can land on Mars. The Dream Chaser is also a symbol of the human aspiration to explore and discover the final frontier, as Steve Lindsey, vice president of space exploration systems at Sierra Space and a former NASA astronaut, said: “We’re trying to create a space transportation system that is routine, safe, reliable, and affordable.”
– After decades of dreams, a commercial spaceplane is almost ready to fly, Ars Technica, November 1, 2023
– Meet ‘Tenacity:’ Sierra Space unveils 1st Dream Chaser space plane (photos), MSN, November 3, 2023
– Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser clears key pre-launch hurdle, BizWest, October 27, 2023
– Gentle Runway Landings for a Seven Passenger Mini-Shuttle Spaceplane in 2024, Next Big Future, November 1, 2023