WASHINGTON – Sierra Space says it is making good progress on its first Dream Chaser spaceplane as the company looks for versions of the vehicle that can carry crews and perform national security missions.
The company provided SpaceNews with images of the first Dream Chaser, called Tenacity, assembled at its Colorado headquarters. The structure of the vehicle is almost complete, but there is still work to install its thermal protection system and other components.
“We already have the wings on. It really does look like a space plane,” said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, during a panel at the AIAA ASCENDx Texas conference in Houston on April 28, where she showed a video showing construction work on the vehicle.
In a recent interview, Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space, said the company had completed structural testing of the vehicle and was moving toward final integration and testing. It should be ready to ship to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station, in August or September for four months of thermal vacuum testing.
“We then ship it to the Kennedy Space Center for integration into the Vulcan rocket,” he said, with a launch tentatively planned for February. However, Kavandi said in his remarks at the AIAA conference that the launch was planned “within a year or so.”
That launch will be the first in a series of cargo missions to the International Space Station under a NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract awarded in 2016. Sierra Space is looking beyond cargo missions and beginning work on a manned version of the Dream Chaser that could launch as soon as 2026.
Work on the manned version is funded internally, he said, but with the hope of offering it to NASA for future ISS crew transport missions. “We think we have a very good opportunity to return to the NASA crew,” she said. NASA supported earlier phases of Dream Chaser development through funded Space Act Settlements in its Commercial Crew Development program, but did not select the vehicle for contracts it awarded in 2014 to Boeing and SpaceX to complete development and manned vehicle testing.
Vice said the company sees interest in the Dream Chaser crewed flights beyond NASA. “We are very excited about how quickly the touring pieces for Dream Chaser are coming together,” he said. Those flights would transport people to a commercial space station like Orbital Reef, a project led by Blue Origin with Sierra Space as a key partner. “Every person we’ve talked to who wants to go to Dream Chaser wants a destination.”
Sierra Space has also discussed making a version of the Dream Chaser for national security missions, but offered some details on how it would be different from cargo or crew versions. It has been speculated that it would have similar capabilities to the US Space Force’s X-37B space plane, whose missions have been kept largely secret.
Vice declined to go into details about the national security variant, including whether Sierra Space or the national security space community initiated discussions about it. “I’d just say it’s an interesting two-way conversation,” he said.