Dream Chaser landing
Sierra Space will work with a Japanese company an a local government to study potential landings of its Dream Chaser vehicle at a Japanese airport. Credit: Sierra Space

WASHINGTON — Sierra Space has signed an agreement to study future landings of its Dream Chaser vehicle at a Japanese airport.

Sierra Space, working in cooperation with Kanematsu Corporation and Oita Prefecture, announced Feb. 26 the memorandum of understanding regarding landings of Dream Chaser at Oita Airport. As part of the agreement Sierra Space and Kanematsu will collaborate on potential business opportunities in Japan and elsewhere in Asia for Dream Chaser.

“Dream Chaser is a multi-variant space vehicle which leverages flexible design and performance versatility with the ability to land on existing commercial runways worldwide,” Tom Vice, chief executive of Sierra Space, said in a statement. “Through this project with Oita Prefecture and Kanematsu Corporation, Sierra Space can envisage a future where the Oita Space Port is a hub for Dream Chaser landings, enabling returning space missions to land in Japan as part of our growing global network of landing sites.”

The local government has been working for several years to turn the airport into a spaceport. That included an agreement with Virgin Orbit in 2020 to host that company’s LauncherOne air-launch system, a rocket launched from a Boeing 747 aircraft that would take off and land from the airport. Virgin executives said in January the first LauncherOne mission from Oita could take place as soon as 2023.

“We will proceed with our feasibility study along with Kanematsu to utilize Oita Airport as a landing site in Asia for Sierra Space,” Katsusada Hirose, governor of Oita Prefecture, said in a statement. “Furthermore, we expect that this collaboration will expand to various fields such as business and education, inspiring children and companies in Oita.”

The announcement didn’t give a schedule for the study or when the first landing in Oita could take place. Initial flights of Dream Chaser will land at Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility, the former Shuttle Landing Facility runway at the Kennedy Space Center, but Sierra Space has previously emphasized the ability of Dream Chaser to land on many conventional runways.

One potential landing site for Dream Chaser is Huntsville International Airport in Alabama. The airport is applying for a reentry site operator license from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow Dream Chaser landings at the airport. Documents submitted as part on an ongoing environmental review for that license application projected landings to start at the airport as soon as 2023, growing to as many as three per year in 2027.

Sierra Space is currently working on a version of Dream Chaser for transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station under a NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. The first flight of the vehicle is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023 on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, during a panel discussion at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 16.

Dream Chaser was originally proposed as a crewed vehicle and won initial rounds of commercial crew awards from NASA before losing to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 for the contract to complete development and testing of those vehicles. The company is maintaining plans for a crewed version as well as a third variant “for other opportunities,” Kavandi said, such as missions that require a payload bay that can be depressurized or need additional power or propulsion. “Maybe someone on the [national security space] side might be interested in that kind of a vehicle,” she said at the conference.

To support both Dream Chaser and its role on the proposed Orbital Reef commercial space station led by Blue Origin, Sierra Space is planning to nearly double its workforce. The company, which currently has 1,100 employees, said Feb. 24 it will create 1,000 new jobs by the end of the year. The majority of the positions will be in Colorado, where the company is headquartered, but others will be in locations in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Sierra Space was spun out of Sierra Nevada Corporation in 2021 and, in November, raised a $1.4 billion Series A funding round. “It really helped is accelerate our plans,” Kavandi said of that funding round.

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...