To the Fore: SNC’s Dream Chaser Racks Up Another Milestone

Sierra Nevada Corporation has made steady progress toward having their Dream Chaser space plane send crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation
Sierra Nevada Corporation has made steady progress toward having their Dream Chaser space plane send crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has successfully completed yet another milestone test with their Dream Chaser flight test vehicle this week, bringing the company one step closer to putting their future spacecraft through a series of free-flight Approach and Landing (ALT) tests over the southern California desert in the coming weeks.

The latest test took place Thursday, Aug. 22, at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center—the same location where the ALT tests will be conducted. SNC’s Dream Chaser test vehicle was put through a second captive-carry test flight, being carried to a maximum altitude of 12,400 feet by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter over the dry lake bed of Edwards Air Force Base. Dream Chaser was flown a distance of three miles along the same projected path it is expected to fly when the time comes for the upcoming ALT tests. The spacecraft’s flight computer, guidance, navigation, and control systems were all tested in flight, and its landing gear and nose skid were also deployed, proving the hardware is ready for free-flight.

“Today is the first time we have flown a fully functional Dream Chaser flight vehicle, and we are very pleased with the results,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “Our team represents the very best in collaboration between industry and government. We have worked closely with NASA, Dryden, and the Air Force to reach this important milestone in our flight test program. We look forward to seeing Dream Chaser land on the same runway as the space shuttle orbiters once did as we move forward in the development of the next-generation crew transportation vehicle.”

The success of this second captive-carry test flight comes on the heels of a series of successful ground-tow tests that took place this summer. Those tests, which were also performed at Dryden, were conducted four times over the course of two months to prove Dream Chaser’s braking and landing systems are ready for the upcoming flight tests. Teams put their vehicle through comprehensive integrated testing on the runway, ramps, and hangar, finding issues on the ground and addressing them in preparation for upcoming free flights. A pick-up truck pulled the Dream Chaser flight test vehicle through several low- and high-speed tow tests on Dryden’s concrete runways at 10, 20, 40, and 60 mph. Those tests helped verify the integrity of the vehicle, proving it can perform as expected under landing and rollout conditions. Teams also conducted vehicle flight verifications on Dream Chaser’s flight computer and flight software, instrumentation, guidance, navigation and control, and remote commanding capability—among others.

NASA image of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser SNC posted on AmericaSpace
Within the past seven days, SNC has conducted two separate tests of the Dream Chaser. Photo Credit: NASA / SNC

It’s great to see real American-made hardware taking flight right here in the U.S.,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) manager. “This is just the start of an exciting flight test campaign for SNC’s Dream Chaser at Dryden.”

NASA has amended SNC’s Dream Chaser Space Act Agreement (SAA) to include two additional, optional milestones in the development of their Dream Chaser spacecraft, adding $15 million to the value of SNC’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) initiative, which now totals $227.5 million. The additional milestones will help fund work associated with the Critical Design Review (CDR) for SNC’s Dream Chaser Space System and will allow for additional testing of the vehicle’s reaction control system. The addition of both milestones to SNC’s CCiCap SAA also extends the company’s performance period from May 2014 to August 2014.

Designed to carry as many as seven astronauts, Dream Chaser is the only spacecraft under the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that is winged and designed to land on a runway—just like NASA’s space shuttle used to. However, unlike the shuttle, Dream Chaser will be able to land on any conventional runway capable of handling commercial traffic.

When ready, Dream Chaser will launch atop a human-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas-V 402 rocket, with a fleet of Dream Chasers based out of Florida’s historic launch sites at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Dream Chaser will have no abort blackout zones and will have a 3.5 day free flight capability—with the added benefit of deorbiting at any time (since Dream Chaser can land on any conventional runway). The spacecraft will also be able to stay at the International Space Station (ISS) for up to seven months at a time, if needed, before having to return to Earth. An expected 1.5 G nominal reentry will provide ideal conditions for returning fragile cargo and science experiments, in addition to making the return to gravity easier on the crew (SNC expects immediate access to crew and cargo upon landing). A quick turnaround and an almost entirely reusable vehicle are two of Dream Chaser’s main selling points.

Sierra Nevada is one of several companies currently competing to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities in cooperation with NASA, with the goal of achieving safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS. Eventually, NASA intends on choosing at least two providers to deliver crews to the ISS under contract.

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  1. SNC has the furthest to go to get an operational vehicle, but I think the Dream Chaser is the vehicle many in NASA would prefer to use over the capsule alternatives. Less g’s and a runway landing – what’s not to like?

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