The First Dream Chaser Vehicle is Prepared for Final Testing

Sierra Space’s highly anticipated Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane is nearing completion and preparing for its first flight. The vehicle, named Tenacity, will undergo environmental testing at NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio before its scheduled launch at the Kennedy Space Center in March 2024.

Dream Chaser is a unique spaceplane that includes an expendable cargo module and solar panels. It was chosen by NASA for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract, alongside SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. The primary purpose of Dream Chaser is to transport supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Unlike other spacecraft, Dream Chaser is designed to land on a runway, specifically the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Sierra Space’s CEO, Tom Vice, expressed optimism about the future of Dream Chaser. He expects Tenacity to be ready for another flight within six months of landing, using United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. The company is contracted for seven missions under the CRS-2 agreement and is in discussions for additional flights. In addition to ISS missions, Dream Chaser can also serve as an orbiting science platform for various government agencies or commercial customers.

The development of Dream Chaser has faced challenges and delays, including supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. To counter these obstacles, Sierra Space has focused on building components in-house to ensure faster production and higher quality. The company has even manufactured its own solar panels on-site to power its facilities. Delays have also occurred due to stringent requirements set by NASA and the need to ensure compatibility between Dream Chaser’s software and that of the ISS.

Sierra Space is still awaiting a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform commercial reentry. Vice acknowledged that the FAA is overwhelmed with numerous launch requests and suggested that additional resources are needed to accommodate the growing space industry.

Dream Chaser has undergone extensive testing, including the successful deployment of its wings. The wings are folded during launch to fit within Vulcan’s fairing and are later unfolded in space for control. Although the wings play a role in atmospheric control, the primary source of lift is the spacecraft’s body. Sierra Space has also prioritized the use of safer propellants, such as Rocket Propellant 1 (RP-1) and hydrogen peroxide, instead of toxic hypergolic propellants like hydrazine.

In terms of future designs, Sierra Space is already working on its second spaceplane, which benefits from the lessons learned during Tenacity’s construction. The company has reduced the number of issues by 80%, resulting in faster assembly and lower costs. The cargo variant of Dream Chaser currently features a non-reusable cargo module that burns up upon reentry. However, Sierra Space is developing an inflatable ablative shield called Ghost, which could allow for the reuse of the cargo module and vehicles up to 15 times, significantly reducing costs.

Tenacity will soon be transported to NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio for environmental testing before heading to the Kennedy Space Center for launch preparations. The exact launch date has not been announced, but Sierra Space anticipates a launch no earlier than March 2024 using ULA’s Vulcan Centaur launcher.

The completion of Tenacity marks a significant milestone for Sierra Space and brings us one step closer to the era of reusable spaceplanes. Dream Chaser’s versatility and potential for both cargo missions and scientific research make it a valuable addition to the future of space exploration. With ongoing advancements and future designs, Sierra Space continues to push the boundaries of space travel and pave the way for more sustainable and efficient missions.