The Age of the Spaceplane is Coming

I’ve always been a sucker for spaceplanes. The idea of taking off in a sleek aircraft, heading to space, and then using it to come back for a smooth landing was once so science-fictiony. I loved it! It’s what many of us hoped the age of the space shuttles would bring to space flight. To a large extent, they did bring the dream alive beginning in 1981. When the shuttle program ended in 2011, we all looked around for a viable replacement. Today, NASA is counting on Apollo-style capsules on rockets to get people and goods to space. That’s all fine and good, but a good spaceplane is needed. As it turns out, one is on the horizon.

The Dream Chaser Spaceplane

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, compared to a space shuttle. Artist’s concept courtesy SNC.

Enter the Dream Chaser. It’s a sleek little reusable shuttle about a quarter the size of the space shuttle, but the ability to carry cargo and/or up to seven astronauts to space. It’s been under development by the Sierra Nevada Corporation since the early 2000s. Dream Chaser’s history is much older and derives from ideas and designs dating back to the dawn of the space age.

The X-20 Dyna-Soar was first spaceplane-style design, dating back to the late 1950s. Other ideas for such a plane were developed by Northrup with its M2-F2 and the Martin company’s PRIME aircraft. The most direct ancestor of the Dream Chaser was NASA’s HL-20 aircraft, which dates back to the early 1990s. Its DNA also includes some ideas from the Russian/Soviet MiG-105 military aircraft.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser (there’s been more than one aircraft with that name) is on target to become part of NASA’s Commercial Crew development program. It already has commitments from the European Space Agency for its use in space. Once certified, Dream Chaser will be able to carry people and cargo to the International Space Station, or other targets in near-Earth orbit. I had a chance to see a mockup of this neat little spaceplane a year or so back at a local space event.  For me, it brings back the excitement of the space shuttles, but with 21st-century technology built in.

Testing, Testing, Testing…

Dream Chaser at the end of a flight test; testing will continue through 2017 into 2018. Courtesy SNC.

Before Dream Chaser can go to space on a regular basis, it needs testing. With its awarded contracts to take people and cargo to space, the plane is undergoing aerodynamic and flight testing. Models are set up at NASA Langley’s wind tunnels and it has already done one round of flight tests. More are on the horizon through the rest of this year and into 2018. If all goes well (and so far, it looks good), the Dream Chaser will enter service for NASA in 2019.

Personally, I can’t wait to see this little spaceplane soar into space atop a rocket such as the Atlas V, Falcon Heavy, or an Ariane 5. Future missions could include a servicing visit to Hubble Space Telescope (although whether that will happen is open to debate). The UN has bought time on the spaceplane to give space to nations without launch capability. And, of course, the aforementioned cargo deliveries to the ISS and other stations are prime missions.

Dream Chaser’s parent company has been exploring the idea and possibilities of landing the spaceplane at public airports. Since its systems will not require special handling, it’s entirely possible that someday, we’ll watch a spaceplane come back to regular airports as needed. That may seem a bit far-fetched now, but as such things as space tourism develop further, landing people back near their home ports may be entirely possible. Until then, Dream Chaser is one of several vehicles (in addition to Spaceship 2 and balloon-borne craft) to watch as the U.S. moves forward into the third decade of 21st Century space exploration.


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