Friday, June 2, 2023

Dream Chaser Powers On for First Time

I haven't devoted much coverage to an interesting looking little spacecraft that has appeared in the news since I first switched to spending most of my time covering space news, the Sierra Space Dream Chaser spacecraft.  Briefly, looking more like a smaller, updated Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is being positioned to fill a role that currently is shared by SpaceX and Northrup Grumman - the delivery of cargo  - and possibly crew change missions (currently only SpaceX) to the ISS.  

The Dream Chaser and its Shooting Star propulsion module.  Sierra Space image. 

Sierra Space is either an offshoot from or a renamed version of Sierra Nevada (I didn't find a specific description), a bigger name in space flight.  Back when the Commercial Crew Program was getting started, SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Space were all selected as finalists competing for the manned spaceflight contract.  At the final down-selection to the two to return manned spaceflight to the US, the first two went forward while Blue and Sierra didn't.  Earlier this year, Sierra was contracted to deliver cargo to the ISS.  The company website describes the vehicle itself as "...a multi-mission vehicle capable of supporting a variety of LEO needs".

Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract, Dream Chaser will provide a minimum of seven cargo service missions to and from the space station.

With the help of our Shooting Star™ service module, Dream Chaser can deliver up to 5,500 kg (~12 tons) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station, including food, water, supplies, and science experiments and returns to Earth. Dream Chaser can return critical cargo at less than 1.5 g’s using a gentle runway landing.

This doesn't mean that they stopped work on the manned version of the Dream Chaser. 

Dream Chaser was originally designed as a crewed spaceplane, in part under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, capable of carrying up to seven astronauts to and from the space station and other low Earth orbit (LEO) destinations. Dream Chaser is 30 feet, or 9 meters long—roughly ¼ the total length of the space shuttle orbiters.

The crewed version of Dream Chaser is approximately 85% common to the cargo system, limiting primary changes to windows, environmental control and life support systems. In addition, an integral main propulsion system is available for abort capability and major orbital maneuvers.

Sierra Space also partnered with Blue Origin in the private space station segment, too, with the announcement of work on the Orbital Reef project, the "mixed-use business park in space." 

Comparatively speaking, then, the company's May 31 announcement that they had powered on the spaceplane for the first time is relatively small news, but small steps are important, too.  

The test comes as the company prepares to ship the first Dream Chaser, called Tenacity, to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, the former Plum Brook Station. There, the spacecraft will go through thermal vacuum tests before shipping to Cape Canaveral for final launch preparations.

A problem that Sierra has to deal with is that they're scheduled to be the second launch on ULA's Vulcan Centaur, which currently isn't ready for prime time.  That's in addition to the much more common problems of scheduling arrivals and departures from the ISS.  It's not a bad situational overview to think they might not have their first flight before the end of '23, and might well go into '24 depending on how Vulcan goes.  (I still haven't seen an update since ULA canceled their Vulcan static fire test last Thursday).

If "Tenacity" is a way of life rather than just the name for that first Dream Chaser, they'll be fine facing the mountain of obstacles between now and what they visualize the company becoming.


  1. Excellent for Sierra Nevada. Once again, private non-traditional aerospace is showing the way to do things. Always thought that a small crew only shuttle was the way to go, which, come to think of it, was one of the original proposals for the Shuttle (crew and small payload). Then there's the proposed 'lifeboat' for the ISS that looked like DreamChaser (which should surprise nobody because DreamChaser was based off the NASA research for the proposed lifeboat/crew only spaceplane that NASA nixed (NASA is poopyheads...))

  2. Although exceedingly slim, there's a chance SpaceX might consider launching it.

    It would take considerable effort on both parties' engineering skills, though.

    1. Early on, Sierra Nevada worked with SpaceX to fit DreamChaser on Falcon9. The SpaceX fairing is 5.2m in diameter, and DreamChaser needs a 5.0m diameter fairing, and even with the cargo/power module, would fit inside the SpaceX fairing.

      All SpaceX and SN would have to do is rig up some mounting equipment and it's a go.

    2. Yes, I was aware of thet. SpaceX kinda dragged their feet on the "project", though, due to the necessity of hanging an oversided clamshell on the top of the booster. Still and all, it could be done! And, the booster is human-rated to boot!

      I say, let's do it! Full Send.

  3. Sierra Space is a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada.

    Dream Chaser is 19 years old, 2004; about the time Nasa dumped the shuttles. Sierra Nevada bought Dream Chaser when it bought SpaceDev 2008. Sierra Nevada has kept the project alive though not materially advanced or funded it. The project has not been a priority for Sierra and space planes have not been a priority for the space industry or Nasa.

    Given Boeing's Starliner difficulties, Nasa might be inclined to send some more money to Sierra Space to hedge a Boeing failure.

    Nasa plans to dump ISS in 8 years. Does Nasa want to invest more in ISS if they are going to trash it? Not sure how much Nasa loves Sierra. Sierra needs to hire a bunch of Boeing's lobbyists.

    1. Thanks for that. I got into one of those time squeezes I get into and didn't spend time looking.

      There's a serious look at Boeing's troubles on Ars Technica, which I almost excerpted last night. Although they talk it down, it seems that we can't rule out Boeing just giving up on Starliner. That may mean refunding some money to NASA.

      The program seemed to have been mishandled from the start. They seem to be saying, "we shouldn't have even bid on this," but it seems the only thing keeping them from not dropping Starliner is kind an institutional ego that says, "we're Boeing, we don't give up." Well, maybe add in some "sunk cost fallacy" that they've spent so much on it already.

      As for NASA investing more in ISS instead of letting it fall apart, I think they've decided already to let it die of old age. They seem to be pushing or investing in (not sure) Axiom Space, Blue Origin and Sierra Space's private space stations.

      Personally, I think they've thrown away so much money on Artemis/SLS that their goal to get back to the moon is at risk.

    2. If the Dream Chaser can carry 7 people to LEO, it has the potential to be a good "space taxi" for future space stations. Well, that is until Starship is man-rated. But even then, Dream Chaser would be a good "lifeboat" for LEO space stations.

    3. Small space planes have not historically worked out, despite decades of attempts and billions in funding, in the US, Europe, and Russia.

      There seems to be a minimum size to be cost effective, and anything smaller than the x-37 is pretty suspect.

    4. Dream Chaser is older than 2004. It's based on the ISS Lifeboat.

      As to the size of Dream Chaser, it is about the size of the X-37B. Which begs the question of why Boeing didn't do a crewed version of the X-37B, or a modified one. If you look at the X-37B, you can see where, on the front, one can easily place a windshield.

    5. Thank you SiGraybeard for all of your posts, always excellent and greatly appreciated.
      BillB, Anonymous and Beans, absolutely agree with and thank you for your comments.