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Dream Chaser spaceship

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
03 May 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Space Systems is developing the Dream Chaser spacecraft for low Earth orbit crew transportation.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable spacecraft that launches vertically and lands horizontally on a conventional runway.

SNC has been awarded $105.6m of funding under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program. 

NASA hopes that several companies can develop safe, reliable and cost-effective transport systems for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

The Dream Chaser is being designed to carry up to 7 astronauts, as well as cargo, into orbit, in particular to and from the International Space Station.

The Dream Chaser would be launched atop an Atlas V rocketDream Chaser would launch atop an Atlas V rocket provided by United Launch Alliance (see artist illustration, left).

Dream Chaser is being designed as a reusable craft and is based on the design of NASA’s HL-20 lifting body vehicle which had years of development. Although the craft appears to have some of the characteristics of an aeroplane, it would take off vertically atop of a rocket rather than a horizontal runway take-off.

The craft is designed to be capable of free flight in low Earth orbit and to dock with the space station.

On re-entry Dream Chaser would land on a conventional runway, like an aeroplane or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Dream Chaser’s re-entry would pull low g-forces providing a gentle return experience for both astronauts and science experiments.

The Dream Chaser would use SNC’s Hybrid Rocket Propulsion systems that have many years of development and are also being used to power Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital craft, SpaceShipTwo. A version of SNC’s hybrid rocket system was also used to power the X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne.

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser lands on a conventional runway (artist's illustration)
Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser will land on a conventional runway (artist's illustration). Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

As a reusable craft that will land on a conventional runway, SNC is designing the spacecraft for a quick turnaround and to be simple to maintain.

SNC has re-invested NASA funds to establish operations at several NASA centers, including NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to leverage NASA’s experience and expertise in human spaceflight. Johnson Space Center's Engineering and Mission Operations Directorates are both receiving funding from SNC.  These agreements include work in a variety of areas such as thermal protection and the use of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center.

“Thanks to the work of those at Johnson Space Center, America was able to put men on the moon and the International Space Station into orbit.  As the Dream Chaser program develops a vehicle to backfill the capabilities of the Space Shuttle, it will not be without a significant contribution from the experts at Johnson Space Center,” explained Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President of SNC's Space Systems.

SNC are aiming for the Dream Chaser to be ready to enter operational service by 2016.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 NASA’s strategy is to use commercial businesses to service low-Earth orbit. Cargo and crew transport is managed by the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office – C3PO – from the Johnson Space Center. Under C3PO, cargo transportation is organised under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program whilst the transport of astronauts is developed under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Companies awarded Space Act Agreements under the Commercial Crew Development programme so far include SNC, Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation and United Launch Alliance.