Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is vigorously pushing ahead with an unmanned cargo version of their Dream Chaser space plane that is aimed at fulfilling NASA’s ongoing needs for carrying critical supplies to the crews serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS), despite recently losing NASA’s commercial crew contract to develop a manned “space taxi” version to carry our astronaut crews to the orbiting outpost.
SNC unveiled the new cargo version, dubbed Dream Chaser Cargo System, at a media briefing held today, March 17, in Washington, D.C., as their entrant into the high stakes sweepstakes for NASA’s next round of space station resupply contracts, named Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2).
The uncrewed Dream Chaser vehicle features an innovative and versatile foldable-wing design, enabling it to launch inside payload fairings on both American and foreign rockets, and can transport as much as 5000 kilograms of provisions, gear, spare parts, equipment, and research packages to orbit.
Furthermore, the fully autonomous ship can still make runway landings that offer virtually instant access to returning cargo and delicate science experiment samples, as outlined by Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems at today’s press briefing.
Video Caption: Video illustrates operation of uncrewed version of Dream Chaser space plan proposal by SNC for resupply of the International Space Station. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation
The Dream Chaser Cargo System is SNC’s complete system solution for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract, notes Sirangelo. And it can accomplish the first launch within approximately three years to meet NASA’s contact stipulation.
“The Dream Chaser Cargo System will be ready to launch in 2018,” Sirangelo told AmericaSpace during the briefing.
The cargo version of Dream Chaser is a stripped down variant of the original manned version, which was under development by SNC for more than a decade but lost out in the bid for NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) last fall. However, the cargo version does build on and benefit from all the work accomplished for the crew version.
The Dream Chaser program was begun by SNC as a reusable, manned space plane to restore America’s indigenous capability to ferry American astronauts from American soil to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS)— with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) under the auspices of the agency’s commercial crew program (CCP).
Dream Chaser is a lifting body design. It’s a mini shuttle about 1/3 the size of NASA’s manned shuttle orbiters that flew for three decades until they were forcibly retired in 2011.
Siranglo said that assembly of the structural framework of the first Dream Chaser vehicle originally intended for the manned version is still in progress by Lockheed Martin in Texas, and will be adapted to the cargo variant.
“The first cargo Dream Chaser will feature the foldable wings,” Sirangelo stated.
SNC expects to take delivery of the first vehicle from Lockheed by late-April and will continue outfitting it with all the spacecraft systems at SNC’s manufacturing facility in Colorado.
The vehicle also meets or exceeds all of NASA’s specified cargo requirements for ISS pressurized and unpressurized cargo and return as described in the CRS-2 cargo contract RFI.
Sirangelo noted that the vehicle is designed for reuse at least a dozen times. It also features a non-toxic, non-hypergolic propulsion system, enabling rapid access to the cargo after the low-g runway touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center shuttle landing facility in Florida or other airports around the world.
The cargo Dream Chaser will feature foldable wings so that it can launch under the standard 5-meter-diameter payload Ruag fairing of either the United Launch Alliance Atlas V or ESA’s Ariane V rockets. Other launchers such as the Delta IV and Japans H2-B are possible also in the future.
The ship sports deployable solar arrays, allowing for extended duration flights.
The cargo variant is comprised of two components, said Steve Lindsey, former NASA shuttle commander and now senior director and co-program manager, SNC’s Space Systems Space Exploration Systems.
“The upmass and downmass exceeds NASA requirements. It can accomplish a runway landing loaded with 1750 kg of cargo. All cargo is returned to NASA within 24 hours and can begin shortly after landing.”
The returning cargo module would be loaded with trash, jettisoned after departing the ISS, and burned up upon reentry into the atmosphere.
“Our vehicle restores NASA’s downmass capability and is three times the requirement.”
NASA is expected to announce at least two winners for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract as a follow-on to the original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-1) contract.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK hold the current CRS-1 cargo contracts from NASA, which involve 20 cargo delivery runs through at least the end of 2016. Both companies are believed to have submitted proposals for the CRS-2 contracts.
SpaceX has completed five of 12 operational Dragon cargo missions. Orbital ATK has completed two of eight. The third mission was destroyed during the Orb-3 launch catastrophe in October 2014.
The CRS-2 submissions are due by March 21, 2014.
The CRS-2 contract is valued at between $1.0 billion and $1.4 billion per year, and NASA requires this service from 2017 through 2024, according to the RFI.
NASA expects delivery of 14,250 to 16,750 kilograms per year of pressurized cargo as well as 1,500 to 4,000 kg per year of unpressurized cargo. The RFI also requests return or disposal of up to 14,250 to 16,750 kg per year of pressurized cargo.
Last fall, the Sierra Nevada manned Dream Chaser lost out in the contract bid for NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP).
On Sept. 16, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that Boeing and SpaceX had won NASA’s history-making competition to build the first-ever privately developed “space taxis” to transport American astronauts to the ISS, at a media briefing held at the Kennedy Space Center and attended by AmericaSpace.
Under the CCtCAP award, NASA awarded contracts valued at $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX aimed at restoring America’s capability to launch American astronauts from American soil by the end of 2017.
Boeing was given the highest value award worth $4.2 billion to build the CST-100. SpaceX was awarded a lesser secondary amount valued at $2.6 billion to build the Dragon V2—an advanced version of the unmanned cargo Dragon delivering supplies to the ISS. The most recent Dragon cargo launch on the CRS-5 mission took place in January 2015, and the next one—CRS-6—is currently slated sometime in April.
Nevertheless, Sirangelo told AmericaSpace that SNC is still pursuing the manned version.
“We still have a path to the crewed version and are still interested in its development,” Sirangelo said.
SNC still plans to complete its obligations under CCiCAP to NASA.
“The second free flight drop test would be completed by the end of 2015.”
Be sure to check out AmericaSpace’s in-depth look at the manned version of Dream Chaser, and read the exclusive five-part Dream Chaser one-on-one interview series with SNC VP Mark Sirangleo: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace