Dream Chaser spaceplane 1st launch delayed until 2025

Two men working on black and white, smallish spaceplane in large white room.
Tenacity, the 1st Dream Chaser spaceplane by Sierra Space, undergoes processing inside the Space Systems Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday, May 20, 2024. The cargo spaceplane arrived inside a climate-controlled transportation container from the agency’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio. The inaugural launch of Dream Chaser will be an uncrewed resupply mission to the International Space Station. The date is not yet set. Image via NASA/ Kim Shiflett.

United Launch Alliance CEO Tony Bruno announced at a press conference on June 26, 2024, that Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser won’t get its first launch this year. The company made the call, Ars Technica reported, because of delays getting the spaceplane ready to go. Bruno expressed his disappointment:

Timing is everything. We waited as long as possible on Dream Chaser because we really, really wanted to fly them. It’s a very exciting mission.

The change in the ULA schedule is due to pressure from the U.S. Space Force. The newest American military wing wants ULA’s new Vulcan rocket certified for military launches ASAP. For ULA, that means launching the vehicle with a dummy payload instead of the first private spaceplane. For spaceflight fans, it means disappointment.

The Space Force has a growing backlog of military missions awaiting Vulcan’s certification. The rocket was supposed to make its first flight in 2021. The inaugural liftoff came this year instead.

New spaceplane will be a ferry to the space station

Tenacity – the first model of the Dream Chaser spaceplane from Sierra Space – arrived at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on May 20, 2024. Eventually, the vessel will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. For its first mission, sometime in 2025, it will carry about 8,500 pounds (3,850 kg) to the International Space Station. NASA has contracted with Sierra Space for seven cargo missions to the space station. Sierra Space also has plans for a second version of its Dream Chaser spaceplane, which will carry crew to low-Earth orbit destinations.

In a news release, NASA said the craft will expand the agency’s commercial low-Earth orbit resupply program. They described the punishing testing the tiny 30-by-15-foot (9-by-4.5-meter) craft has already undergone at the Neil Armstrong Test Facility:

Before arriving at Kennedy, the spaceplane and its cargo module underwent vibration testing atop the world’s highest capacity and most powerful spacecraft shaker system inside the agency’s Space Environments Complex, exposing the stack to vibrations like those it will experience during launch and reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Following vibration testing, the duo moved to NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Facility and was exposed to low ambient pressures and temperatures ranging from -150 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (-101 to 148 degrees Celsius).

When in full swing, the Dream Chaser Tenacity (aka the DC-100) will carry up to 12,000 pounds (5,440 kg) to low-Earth orbit.

Dream Chaser will be 1st private spaceplane to fly

Spaceplanes have been around for decades, with NASA’s space shuttle the most memorable. But there are others flying today, including the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B and a Chinese version with a starkly utilitarian name: the Reusable Experimental Spacecraft.

A Soviet version – the Buran – only made it off the ground once during an uncrewed orbital test flight.

All of them bear a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, especially the Soviet version. Dream Chaser is no exception. It features a bright, white body with a sleek swept delta-wing design and an underbelly covered in black heat-resistant tiles. And Dream Chaser, too, can fly.

Forbes described the craft this way in a 2020 article:

It is a lifting body with winglets that can land on any runway in the world measuring at least 10,000 feet (3 km) in length. In fact, with retirement of the Space Shuttle nearly a decade ago, Dream Chaser is the only spacecraft NASA currently funds that is capable of maneuvering within the atmosphere.

Dark picture of a black and white spaceplane mounted in testing bed inside a silo.
The 1st in a fleet of spaceplanes, Dream Chaser Tenacity and its Shooting Star cargo were stacked inside a thermal vacuum test chamber at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility on April 26, 2024. Image via Joshua Teplitz/ Sierra Space.

Dream Chaser’s sidekick can take out the trash

Dream Chaser also has a sidecar, the Shooting Star cargo module. Sierra Space said it can increase their spaceplane’s cargo capacity by thousands of pounds:

Shooting Star adds a service for NASA to send additional critical science, food and cargo to the space station. Crews can access the Shooting Star via the aft hatch, berthing to the space station. Traveling through the Shooting Star takes them to the forward portion where they can open the hatch and gain access to the Dream Chaser. When attached to the space station, Shooting Star provides a normal cabin environment for astronauts to work, and a prime location for cargo to be removed and placed onto the station after berthing.

Shooting Star carries up to 7,000 pounds (3,175 kg) of cargo. The module – which sports external mounting points for three additional cargo containers – doesn’t survive re-entry into the atmosphere after a mission. Instead, it’s loaded with tons of garbage that vaporize with the module during its fiery descent.

Bottom line: The first cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station by Dream Chaser Tenacity, an uncrewed spaceplane from Sierra Space, is delayed until 2025.


Via Ars Technica

Read more: X-37B spaceplane launched atop SpaceX Falcon Heavy

July 7, 2024

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