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Dream Chaser, or the Private Space Shuttle

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


The private space industry has launched off in a very unexpected way. A single event can be traced to this explosion: the cancellation of the Constellation Program in February of 2010. Instead of going back to the Moon a refocus on Mars and the private sector was emphasized in the hopes of lowering space costs. An initial amount of $50 million was awarded by Charles Boldin, a NASA administrator, to several space companies. One of those was Dream Chaser, which received $20 million of it. An alternative to Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, it hopes to carry on space shuttle tech along with some abandoned Soviet concepts (Kushner 42). Curious? Read on.

Development from the Dustbin

Mark Sirangelo, the head engineer of Dream Chaser, was thinking about his project way before 2010. It was 6 years before that when President Bush outlined his Vision for the Future of Space Exploration. In it, Bush gave NASA a mandate to retire the space shuttle and return to the moon. Mark knew that if that were to happen then a replacement would be needed for getting astronauts to the ISS. But what? (42-3)

For inspiration, he looked to NASA’s past: the HL-20, an experimental lifting-body spacecraft from the early 1990’s whose shape is what creates lift and not the wings, hence the title lifting body. HL-20 was a project that was a response to the BOR-4, a top-secret no-pilot Soviet spacecraft from which HL and ultimately Dream Chaser would derive their body style and means for flight. BOR-4 ran a suborbital flight testing the thermal tiles for the up-and-coming Boran Shuttle and landed in the Indian Ocean, where an Australian reconnaissance plane caught the craft being recovered in 1982. After receiving the pictures, NASA immediately investigated and after years of reviewing material commenced on HL-20. It would be reusable and capable of a horizontal landing (hence the HL) just like the space shuttle. Wind tunnel tests showed that the odd wings provided excellent stability and the overall shape of the body allowed for high agility. But after 10 years of R&D, it was cancelled in 1991 without one ever being built for flight as the focus shifted to the ISS (Kushner 43, Berger "NASA's").

Building Dream Chaser.

Building Dream Chaser.

Mark feels that now is the right time to bring back the concept for the ISS problem. Much development was already done for HL so why let it waste? Besides, much of the tech and concepts from the space shuttle is in HL and it has a quick turnaround from landing to next launch, further reducing costs. To aid in the construction of the modern HL, deemed Dream Chaser, its parent company Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC, founded in 1963) purchased the firm, which initially started this project called SpaceDev. SNC also frequently participates in the contract competitions that NASA has. It had won the earlier mentioned $20 million but in 2006 Dream Chaser lost out on $500 million after NASA awarded the money to SpaceX and Rocket plane Kistler (which has since gone bankrupt) (Kushner 43-4. Howell “Dream Chaser: Sierra,” Berger "NASA's").

Dreaming On

Dream Chaser itself is 30 feet long, has a 20 foot wingspan, would ride atop an Atlas V rocket and is hoping to get at least 7 people at a time to the International Space Station. It is ironic that SNC is developing a unique spacecraft because for years they built rocket parts for other companies including NASA. In fact, SNC helped build Pathfinder and has had parts they built involved in over 300 space missions. NASA has given SNC a big endorsement as to the quality and reliability of their products (Kushner 42-4).

To propel itself once separated from the Atlas rocket, the craft would make use of ethanol-based reactants instead of the traditional monomethyl hydrazine that the space shuttle used. Once in orbit, Dream Chaser has a range of 1,500 kilometers giving it a wide variety of options, including landing at any major runway. Once landed, the craft has an expected turnaround back into LEO within just two weeks (Gebhardt “Sierra Nevada’s").

Dream Chaser coming in for a landing during a test fall.

Dream Chaser coming in for a landing during a test fall.

The first flight of Dream Chaser was just a test run and had a lot of telemetry from both successes and failures. In late October of 2013 she was dropped from a helicopter and allowed to glide down onto Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L. Her landing looked much like a space shuttle’s but instead of a forward landing gear, Dream Chaser utilizes a “landing strip” which actually uses friction to slow the craft down. This worked fine but one of the landing doors for the normal landing gear in the rear did not open properly, causing the craft to land partially on a wing and flip over. It was later revealed that the landing gear that failed was not the one to be used on future Dream Chasers but was an old F-16 part. It should not be a problem in the future. The rest of the data showed that Dream Chaser more than met the expectations of those who built her (Bergin “Dream Chaser Suffers,” Bergin “Dream Chaser ETA”).

Dream Chaser moments after a planned helicopter drop.

Dream Chaser moments after a planned helicopter drop.

And they progressed and progressed, making a better case for the Commercial Crew Program contest NASA conducted called CCtCAP. SNC along with Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 were in the hunt for the lucrative funds and had many milestones to accomplish in order to be considered for providing transportation to the ISS. But in September of 2014 the two winners were announced: Boeing and Space X. SNC was told however that it still could form a partnership with NASA but on a non-funded basis although the company had leads in other markets that still could pick up the company (Bergin “Dream Chaser Misses”). Other possibilities including a partnership with Stratolaunch and a Science Dream Chaser Variant were also explored. SNC also protested the decision but was dismissed.

Dream Chaser being launched by Virgin Galactic's White Knight 2 in an artist's rendering.

Dream Chaser being launched by Virgin Galactic's White Knight 2 in an artist's rendering.


But as you can see, Dream Chaser over a nearly decade-long stretch has not made the same strides at the other companies. Boeing has a long reputation with NASA and SpaceX has large funding from CEO Elon Musk. Dream Chaser does not have access to this and therefore has what some would consider stunted growth. But that has not been an excuse for the company and they continue to strive for what they feel is the best plan for LEO travel.

One of these goals was to pass Milestone-15 (from the CCtCAP challenge), which is the ability to burn a thruster in the vacuum of space successfully. A prototype Dream Chaser one was able to accomplish this by not only going through space maneuvering but also low-atmospheric conditions. The test was done inside a vacuum chamber to ensure that the best results could be achieved (Howell “Dream Chaser Space”).

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Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V rocket in this artist's rendering.

Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V rocket in this artist's rendering.

And NASA took note. In early 2015 it agreed to collaborate with SNC in a Critical Design Review (CDR) capacity (but no money would be awarded for a CDR status). Around the same time SNC announced a cargo-carrying version of Dream Chaser in the hopes of attracting buyers interested in utilizing it for the ISS. This version would have foldable wings, which allow it to fit inside a conventional rocket for easy launch into space, then a nice and smooth reentry once complete with its mission (Bergin “NASA”).

The Dream Chaser Cargo configuration.

The Dream Chaser Cargo configuration.

Because of the hard work that Sierra Nevada put in, NASA awarded them with a contract under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 program, which will service the ISS. This is a huge step for the company, which is expected to start its runs to the ISS by 2019 and end by 2024. In the Dream Chaser Cargo configuration, up to 44,000 pounds inside the vehicle and an additional 4,000 pounds that is in the module can be brought to ISS. Additionally, the vehicle can bring back trash and experiments within 8-10 hours of launching the craft, allowing for more immediate returns. The cargo module that attaches to the end of Dream Chaser will separate and then burn up upon atmospheric reentry (Gebhardt "NASA," Orwig, Klotz "Dream," Berger "NASA").

It wouldn't be until November 11, 2017 that another helicopter drop was done and Dream Chaser landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Four years had passed since the prior test, during which improvements and repairs to the landing gear were done as well as conversions to let it carry cargo (Berger "Dream").

Works Cited

Berger, Eric. "Dream Chaser Flight Test Update: The Video is Pretty Awesome." Kalmbach Publishing Co., 15 Nov. 2017. Web. 15 Dec. 2017.

---. "NASA signals commitment to private space with $14 billion investment." Conte Nast., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

---. "NASA’s newest cargo spacecraft began life as a Soviet space plane." Conte Nast., 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

Bergin, Chris. “Dream Chaser ETA Review Promotes Positives Despite Anomaly.” NASA Space Flight, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 Sept. 2015.

---. “Dream Chaser Misses Out on SStCAP – Dragon and CST-100 Win Though.” NASA Space Flight, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

---. “Dream Chaser Suffers Landing Gear Failure After First Flight.” NASA Space Flight, 26 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 Sept. 2015.

---. “NASA Agrees to Aid Dream Chaser Development to CDR Level.” NASA Space Flight, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 07 Sept. 2015.

Gebhardt, Chris and Chris Bergin. "NASA Awards CRS2 Contracts to SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada." NASA Spaceflight, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 Jul. 2016.

Gebhardt, Chris. “Sierra Nevada’s 5-Year Partnership with NASA – Progress on Dream Chaser.” NASA Space Flight, 22 Jun. 2012. Web. 03 Sept. 2015.

Howell, Elizabeth. “Dream Chaser: Sierra Nevada’s Design for Spaceflight.”, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

---. “Dream Chaser Space Plane Keeps Marching Toward Flight.”, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

Klotz, Irene. "Dream Chaser Spaceplane to Supply the Space Station." Discovery, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.

Kushner, David. “Dream Chasers.” Discover Sept. 2010: 42-4. Print.

Orwig, Jessica. "NASA ups the competition on SpaceX by partnering with new 'Dream Chaser' spacecraft." Science Alert, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 Jul. 2016.

© 2016 Leonard Kelley

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