New 'Dream Chaser' Space Plane Ready to Start Testing

Artist's conception of the Dream Chaser launching on an Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Artist’s conception of the Dream Chaser launching on an Atlas V rocket.
Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, NASA is now turning to private companies to design and build new spacecraft to take astronauts into orbit. One of the most interesting concepts, the Dream Chaser, is now ready to start testing, and it is hoped that this will help usher in a new era of commercial human spaceflight.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable space plane developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). Appearance-wise, it resembles a mini version of the space shuttle, but modernized. The basic design of the craft can be traced back to NASA’s HL-20 lifting body design.

The first test vehicle arrived at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., last week. The testing procedure will include tests of the flight and runway landing systems. Like the shuttle, the Dream Chaser will launch on a rocket and land like an airplane.

According to William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington, “Unique public-private partnerships like the one between NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation are creating an industry capable of building the next generation of rockets and spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the scientific proving ground of low-Earth orbit. NASA centers around the country paved the way for 50 years of American human spaceflight, and they’re actively working with our partners to test innovative commercial space systems that will continue to ensure American leadership in exploration and discovery.”

The Dream Chaser test vehicle, under protective wrap, being transported to the Dryden Flight Research Center. Photo Credit: NASA / Tom Tschida

The Dream Chaser test vehicle, under protective wrap, being transported to the Dryden Flight Research Center. Photo Credit: NASA / Tom Tschida

Like some other private companies, Sierra Nevada is receiving funding from NASA for its testing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

The Dream Chaser can accommodate up to seven passengers, but is a lot smaller than the space shuttle, measuring about 9 metres (29.5 feet) long, compared to 37 metres (122 feet) long for the space shuttle.

NASA is hoping to be able to start using such commercial spacecraft to restart its own self-reliant astronaut program by 2017. Until that time, with no more shuttles, it has been relying on Russia to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.

However, contrary to some who now see a bleak future for human spaceflight, with companies like SNC now taking an active role, the next few years actually seem quite promising, at least in terms of getting American astronauts into orbit without having to rely on other countries. New missions to the Moon or Mars are still another matter, but hopefully this will be a big step in that direction as well.

This article was first published on Examiner.com

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2 comments to New ‘Dream Chaser’ Space Plane Ready to Start Testing

  • Harry

    While I am optimistic that U.S. commercial companies will offer American, Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts a system to reach orbital space, I am pessimistic about the timeframe. It’s rather bizarre that NASA (once famed for stressing the importance of having a back-up plan) has no immediate alternative to Soyuz. Yet, just across the Kazakhstan border, China has a viable space transportation sytem which could still offer ISS crews a backup should Soyuz become grounded between now and 2017. Yes, geopolitics continues to rear its ugly head even though ISS was born out of it and serenely circles above it today. How the mighty have fallen.

  • “The basic design of the craft can be traced back to NASA’s HL-20 lifting body design”.

    The HL-20 of the 90s… Maybe so. But it should be noted that the HL-20 can be traced back to these:

    http://www.astronautix.com/craft/bor4.htm
    http://www.astronautix.com/craft/spiralos.htm
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJy3f72fock

    The BOR-4 wind tunnel model was used by NASA to study configuration and refine it for use in HL-20/HL-42 vehicles.