Sierra Nevada explores other uses of Dream Chaser
WASHINGTON — As Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) continues production of its first Dream Chaser vehicle, the company is looking for ways to leverage that system for other applications.
In a call with reporters Jan. 9 to discuss its plans for the coming year, executives with SNC’s Space Systems division discussed a variety of efforts, such as work on spacecraft components and lunar landers, but emphasized the core program for the company was the Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle the company is building to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station.
“We’ll be in a full court press all year on overall assembly, integration and test of our Dream Chaser spacecraft,” said Steve Lindsey, a former NASA astronaut and current senior vice president of strategy for SNC Space Systems.
Dream Chaser is on schedule, he said, to make a first flight to the ISS in late 2021, launching on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket. The company took delivery of the composite structure for the vehicle’s fuselage in October and expects to receive other components, including the wings and aeroshell, in the near future.
Another key element of Dream Chaser is a cargo module, called Shooting Star, that is attached to the aft end of Dream Chaser. That module gives the vehicle additional capacity for transporting cargo to the station as well as a means of disposing cargo from the station. The module separates from Dream Chaser after departing the station and burns up in the atmosphere, while Dream Chaser reenters and makes a runway landing at the Kennedy Space Center.
Lindsey said that Shooting Star could be repurposed for other applications beyond cargo. “As we developed Shooting Star and worked on it, we’ve realized it actually has multiple capabilities,” he said. “The truth is, it’s a module attached to Dream Chaser than can be modified to do just about anything you might want it to do.”
He said the company is looking at those other uses, including for low Earth orbit commercialization. “We’ve worked on designs that would allow it to even carry a couple of astronauts in either a low Earth orbit standalone mission or to supplement ISS capabilities or even to do free-flying missions.”
The module, he said, could also be repurposed for cislunar missions, such as transporting cargo to NASA’s lunar Gateway. “Basically, what it is is a large, low-cost satellite that has both pressurized and unpressurized capabilities for multiple customers,” he said.
Shooting Star would require modifications for those alternative missions, Lindsey said, but those changes are well-understood and could be done with “off-the-shelf” components. That would include computers and attitude control systems that, under its existing mission, is handled by Dream Chaser, as well as life support systems.
“It’s easily modifiable into just about whatever you want it to do,” he said, “but it depends on what the mission is.”
Lindsey didn’t elaborate on specific opportunities the company is pursuing with Shooting Star, although there are several near-term options. Two elements of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program involve supporting development of commercial modules for the ISS or free-flying stations as part of the agency’s LEO commercialization efforts. NASA also solicited proposals last year for logistics services for the Gateway, but has yet to make an award.
In addition to potential new applications of the Shooting Star module, SNC remains interested in eventually pursuing a crewed version of Dream Chaser. “We’ve never stopped working on the crewed version,” Lindsey said, noting the company still has an unfunded extension of a commercial crew award from 2012 to support planning for a crewed version. “There is interest in the crewed version: not necessarily NASA, but other customers.” He added the company didn’t have a specific schedule for developing a crewed version.
The potential of a crewed version of Dream Chaser, though, was one of the key factors that led former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi to join the company last fall as its new senior vice president of space exploration systems after retiring as director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
“Quite honestly, the primary motivation for me to come to SNC was the incredible Dream Chaser program,” she said on the call. “It is the vehicle that, if I were ever to fly again, I would want to fly on.”