Click the arrow to watch an excerpt from the Huntsville media event. Video source: huntsvillecity YouTube channel.
Sierra Nevada Corporation has yet to fly anything more than an uncrewed drop test, but the company signed an agreement June 15 to explore the feasibility of landing its Dream Chaser space plane at Huntsville International Airport.
SNC already has a deal to explore landing at Houston's Ellington Field, which is a joint-use military and civilian airport owned by the City of Houston. Huntsville is the first purely commercial airport to explore becoming a runway for Dream Chaser.
According to the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce press release:
The preliminary studies will assess environmental factors such as airspace, traffic flow, potential impacts to commercial air traffic and the compatibility of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft with the existing runway and taxiway environments at Huntsville International Airport, a public use airport ...
If preliminary assessments are successful, a second phase of work may begin in late 2015, which could result in the issuance of a re-entry license from the Federal Aviation Administration to land the Dream Chaser spacecraft in Huntsville. The Huntsville International Airport would be the first commercial service airport to acquire the permission and ability to accommodate Dream Chaser spacecraft landings whether on missions to the ISS, or other destinations in low-Earth orbit.
Huntsville is a landing option for the Dream Chaser because of a few obvious factors. The Marshall Space Flight Center runs the science operations on the ISS, and a lot of hardware that goes to the station is manufactured there. Huntsville also has a strong presence of national aerospace giants like Boeing, local technology companies like Teledyne Brown Engineering and Dynetics and research entities like HudsonAlpha the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
The existing capabilities in Huntsville present a strong case — Teledyne Brown already provides logistics services for the science operations on the ISS for Marshall, and they hope to play that role in the Dream Chaser program as well. Teledyne Brown is leading the Huntsville landing initiative from the industry side.
An example of what could happen for a local Huntsville company — the Dream Chaser can operate as an independent science platform, that is, experiments can be sent to space on an unmanned Dream Chaser and run remotely from the ground. This already happens on the ISS to save astronaut time. Teledyne Brown, for example, could be contracted by HudsonAlpha to run a biotech crystal growth experiment in orbit. For this to be cost-effective, the Dream Chaser would need to be packed full of investigations, but when it returns, it would be unloaded in Huntsville and the sensitive results brought to the scientists within hours.
A computer animation of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser released in April 2015. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.
SNC has always planned to land Dream Chaser at Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway. On June 22, the runway will be formally leased by NASA to the state agency Space Florida, which will operate it for the next thirty years. Adding Houston and Huntsville to its landing portfolio might make Dream Chaser a more attractive option for NASA in the future, especially since SNC recently released a proposal for a strictly cargo version that lacks windows.
Dream Chaser has only one free flight to date, an October 2013 drop test at Edwards Air Force Base. Although the flight was nominal, one landing gear failed to deploy, causing the prototype to careen off the runway.
SNC has purchased a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch scheduled for November 2016 to be the first uncrewed test mission for Dream Chaser.