Study To Examine Dream Chaser Landings In Huntsville

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WASHINGTON — A group of local and state agencies in Alabama announced plans June 15 to study the feasibility of hosting landings of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser vehicle at the Huntsville International Airport.

In simultaneous announcements in Huntsville and at the Paris Air Show, officials said they were starting a series of preliminary assessments regarding using the airport for landings of Dream Chaser, a lifting body vehicle under development by Sierra Nevada to transport cargo to the International Space Station as well as other applications.

“We are in the early stages of assessing what it would take to land the Dream Chaser spacecraft at the Huntsville International Airport,” said Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, in a statement announcing the study. “We have a great partnership with Sierra Nevada Corporation, and we are looking forward to the outcome of these first assessments.”

The preliminary assessments, to be conducted over the next 90 days, will examine the feasibility of integrating Dream Chaser landings into the commercial airport’s operations. A second phase of studies would start in late 2015 and could lead to a reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to permit such landings.

The airport, home to several passenger and cargo airlines, has two north-south runways, one 3,050 meters long and the other 3,840 meters long. Both are long enough to handle Dream Chaser, which Sierra Nevada says can land on any runway that can accommodate a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 jetliner. The airport completed an improvement project on the shorter runway earlier this year so it could support Boeing 747-8 cargo aircraft.

Several government agencies and organizations are supporting the study, including Huntsville and the neighboring city of Madison, Madison County, the state of Alabama, the University of Alabama Huntsville, and the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

Laurie Provin of Teledyne Brown Engineering, the Huntsville-based company carrying out the preliminary study, said June 17 the analysis will cost approximately $200,000, with the cities of Huntsville and Madison, and Madison County, paying for it.

Sierra Nevada previously offered Dream Chaser for NASA’s commercial crew program, but failed to win a contract from the agency last year. The company has since submitted a proposal for the second round of commercial cargo contracts using a variant of the original Dream Chaser design. NASA expects to award contracts by September.

Huntsville is not the first airport the company has considered as a potential Dream Chaser landing site. The company announced in April 2014 a letter of intent to study landings of the vehicle at Ellington Airport in Houston, which is in the process of obtaining a spaceport license from the FAA.

John Roth, vice president of business development and strategy for Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said June 16 the company’s agreement with the Houston Airport System regarding Ellington is still in place. “We view Houston as our lead effort in spaceport operations and Huntsville as our lead effort for public use airport services,” he said.