It is almost three years since NASA’s Space Shuttle program flew its last mission in July 2011, after providing a mode of transport into space for various crews over a 30 year career. The retired fleet of four orbiters (Challenger, Endeavour, Discovery and Atlantis) are now pride of place in museums and science centres across the United States. Since the retirement of the Shuttle, a delicate economy and budget cuts have meant NASA have not had their own method of transportation into Low Earth Orbit and are reliant on the Russian Soyuz craft to transfer crews to and from the International Space Station. With changing tides and a gap in the market, several private companies are now emerging to take over and provide new methods of space flight with a little financial help from NASA. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have been awarded millions of dollars to help develop a new reusable space plane the “Dream Chaser”, perhaps this could be the next Shuttle?
The main objectives of the Dream Chaser program as described by its makers is to provide a passenger and cargo transportation system into Low Earth Orbit which will in turn help service and maintain the International Space Station. This craft will provide NASA and other potential customers a safe, reliable and economical mode of space transport. The design of the craft is based upon NASA’s HL-20, developed at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia in the 1980s. It’s much smaller than a Space Shuttle but will provide a roomier journey space for astronauts inside (A Space Shuttle orbiter is 122ft long, the Dream Chaser is 29.5ft). On re-entry, the Dream Chaser should glide to a landing therefore reducing the g-force on the crew and samples onboard, and it is capable of landing on any regular aeroplane runway because of its compact design. Its features should also allow for a quick and easy turnaround, as ablative tiles would only need replaced after several flights and all together as opposed to individually. It is also the only commercial craft being funded that has wings and the ability to land on a runway.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has been able to make this ‘Dream’ a reality with working in partnership with NASA. Towards the end of the Shuttle’s career NASA launched the Commercial Crew Program (CCP). This was to generate innovation in the private sector of the aerospace industry to develop a new safe and reliable space craft for human space flight with technical and financial support from NASA. In the first phase in 2010, NASA provided $50 million to be divided between five different American companies to help in the new redevelopment. Out of the five companies originally meeting the criteria for this program the SNC secured $20 million for Dream Chaser. In 2011, the Dream Chaser project secured a further $80 million in the second phase of the funding and in 2012, providing milestones set by NASA were being met, in the third phase SNC received $212.5 million. Another two funding boosts brings the total invested so far to almost $340 million.
In January of this year SNC announced that the Dream Chaser would launch on its first unmanned orbital flight on 1November 2016. If successful this would then pave the way for manned missions perhaps as early as 2017. In October 2013, the Dream Chaser craft had its first free flight. This was an automated descent after being detached from a helicopter at 12 000ft. Despite a successful flight path followed, part of the landing gear failed to deploy properly which caused the craft to roll over and skid off the runway. The craft didn’t sustain any permanent damage and in terms of the flight it went to plan. This version of the craft is designed to do all of the tests with improvements to be made on the actual Dream Chaser that will orbit the planet.
One difference from the Shuttle is the Dream Chaser craft will be launched atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. The United Launch Alliance vehicle, Atlas V, has been launching satellites into orbit and other craft into space since 2002 and with over 40 launches completed so far it, maintains a 100% success rate. Some of the notable crafts launched include New Horizons (on route to Pluto), the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) as well as many other satellites. This expendable rocket is scheduled for its first test flight with the Dream Chaser in 2016.
It is estimated that each seat on board a Soyuz rocket costs $70 million (which could increase should the Russian government decide it is time to teach a lesson over US support for Ukraine’s government), so in the long-term for the US government to have their own rocket not only is it a matter of pride but perhaps a more cost-effective transport method. The Dream Chaser as well as the other commercial space craft being currently funded by NASA (out of the same CCP pot made by Boeing and SpaceX) are providing jobs and hopefully causing worthwhile a stimulus in the American economy. The Dream Chaser is looking like a prime candidate for US transportation into Low-Earth orbit. Providing test flights go to plan over the next couple of years and they stay on schedule, NASA could be launching astronauts into space from American soil once again before the end of the decade.
(Article by Martina Redpath, Senior Education Support Officer)