Friday, January 24, 2014

Chasing the Dream

Click the arrow to watch the January 23 media event on YouTube. Video source: NASA.

A press conference at Kennedy Space Center yesterday confirmed what the rumor mill had been circulating in the last week.

Sierra Nevada has acquired a Lockheed Martin Atlas V to launch the first uncrewed test flight of their Dream Chaser spaceplane. Scheduled for November 2016, it will launch from the United Launch Alliance pad at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41.

Dream Chaser will be processed in the Operations & Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Billed in March 2012 by Florida Today as the spacecraft factory of the future, the O&C was renovated by Lockheed Martin in partnership with the state agency Space Florida to assemble and test the Orion crew capsule. The renovation was kept generic so it could support other craft.

Click the arrow to watch a March 2012 Florida Today report on the O&C renovation. Video source: Florida Today.

Dream Chaser will be processed to the west side of Orion, which is scheduled to launch on an uncrewed test flight this September atop a Boeing Delta IV at the Cape's Pad 37. If or when we'll ever see the two vehicles side-by-side, remains to be seen.

Sierra Nevada has also leased floor space at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility, where future Dream Chasers will be manufactured with assistance from Lockheed Martin. According to the media event, the second Dream Chaser is now being built at Michoud.

Although Dream Chasers will land at KSC's former Shuttle runway in the future, the November 2016 test flight will land on “the West Coast,” presumably Edwards Air Force Base.

An artist's concept of Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V at Launch Complex 41. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The metaphorical elephant in the room was the pending “downsize” in the summer by NASA of the commercial crew competition. Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% over the last three fiscal years from the Obama administration's request, and in the just-passed Fiscal Year 2014 budget it was cut by 15%. It's estimated that these cuts delayed operational status by at least two to three years, meaning Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing may not fly with people until 2017. The cuts have forced NASA to buy additional taxi rides on the Russian Soyuz, with the current going rate about $70 million per astronaut.

In space subcommittee hearings during the last few years, several members of Congress have demanded that NASA “pick one and move on,” oblivious to the reality that eliminating competition creates a monopoly that stifles innovation and increases costs. That's what happened in 2006 when the government granted Boeing and Lockheed Martin a legal monopoly to create United Launch Alliance. The result was that the commercial satellite business went overseas, leaving ULA to launch only government payloads.

If NASA doesn't choose Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada has another market. On January 8, Sierra Nevada announced an agreement with European space agencies to develop a “Dream Chaser for European Utilization” that could be used for crewed or robotic flights. The vehicle would probably launch on an Ariane 5 at the European spaceport in French Guiana, so once again Congress would drive the business overseas.

Dream Chaser might also fly customers to the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats scheduled for launch in 2017, although no formal deals have been announced.

Click here for the Sierra Nevada press release.

Click here for the NASA press release.

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Watch a December 12, 2011 MSNBC video inside the Dream Chaser simulator. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source:

Media reports:

BBC News “Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle Given 2016 Launch Date”

Denver Post “Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Takes Competitive Leap in NASA Contest”

Florida Today “Dream Chaser Test Launch Planned at KSC in 2016” “Dream Chaser’s KSC Vision Enables 2016 Debut”

NBC News “Sierra Nevada Strikes Deal to Put Space Plane in Orbit in 2016

Popular Mechanics “Dream Chaser Space Plane Will Fly in 2016”

Space News “Sierra Nevada Reserves Atlas Rocket for Dream Chaser Test Flight”

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