Dream Chaser engineering test
Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser engineering test article is being prepared for a new round of flight tests planned for early 2016. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Sierra Nevada Corp. expects to start a new series of unpowered flight tests of its Dream Chaser spacecraft in early 2016 as the company awaits the outcome of a NASA commercial cargo competition.

Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said in a Oct. 7 briefing during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here that the company was wrapping up work on the engineering test article for its Dream Chaser spacecraft in preparation for flight tests.

“It’s now being readied for the second phase, which will start very shortly,” Sirangelo said of the uncrewed lifting body vehicle. “The vehicle is fully functional.”

Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado, developed the test vehicle as part of an earlier award in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. The vehicle performed a single glide flight in October 2013 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Both the company and NASA declared the test a success even through the vehicle skidded off the runway upon landing after its left main landing gear failed to deploy.

The test vehicle has been repaired and upgraded since that test flight. “The vehicle has been upgraded in many significant ways,” he said, including using the same software intended for the orbital version of the Dream Chaser that allows for fully autonomous flight.

Sirangelo said the refurbished test vehicle will be shipped to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in three to four months. “Flight testing will start in the first quarter of 2016,” he said.

Those flight tests will involve deploying Dream Chaser at higher altitudes than the 2013 test, when it was released from a helicopter at an altitude of about 3,800 meters. The higher altitudes will allow the vehicle to fly at faster speeds and perform maneuvers during its descent.

Sirangelo said the company is not planning a specific number of test flights, but instead will perform what it needs to achieve its technical goals. “It will probably take at least three flights,” he said. “We’re thinking three to six, but we don’t know exactly how many.”

Sierra Nevada plans to initially deploy the vehicle from a helicopter, as it did in the 2013 test. Later tests at higher altitudes would involve towing the vehicle behind an airplane, which Sirangelo said he could not identify.

The tests would meet one of the final milestones in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability award the company received from NASA in August 2012. The Space Act Agreement, which runs through March 2016, calls for up to five free flights of the test article to test its approach and landing capabilities. That milestone is valued at $8 million.

Sierra Nevada was previously developing Dream Chaser to carry crews to and from the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada did not win a NASA contract in September 2014 to continue development of the vehicle, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office in January denied a protest in which the company challenged the awards NASA made to competitors Boeing and SpaceX.

The company has since turned its attention to a cargo variant of Dream Chaser that it proposed to NASA for the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services competition, known as CRS-2, to transport cargo to and from the station. Sierra Nevada is one of at least five companies to submit proposals, along with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and SpaceX.

Sirangelo said he is still expecting NASA to award CRS-2 contracts in November. The NASA procurement website for the competition lists a Nov. 5 award date, and a statement posted there in September said the agency “remains on schedule.”

Should Sierra Nevada win a contract, Sirangelo said, the cargo version of Dream Chaser should be ready for flight by late 2018 or early 2019. However, he said that first flight would depend on the terms of the contract: NASA, he suggested, could decide to start Dream Chaser flights earlier or later than other vehicles.

Sirangelo said the company remained committed to the Dream Chaser concept even if the company does not win a CRS-2 contract. “The vehicle is highly mature and in flight tests,” he said. “The idea of taking it and moving to the next level should we not win the cargo program is far more viable than it ever was.”

It is unclear how Sierra Nevada would fund continued development of Dream Chaser without a NASA contract.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...