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.