Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser to Conduct Drop Test Next Summer

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It looks as though the efforts to get commercial space taxis off the ground – is succeeding. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) “Dream Chaser” space plane is slated to conduct its first test flight as early as next summer. SNC is one of four companies that have had proposals selected by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development Program – 02 (CCDev2).

The test flight, what is known as a high-altitude free-flight test or “drop-test” will see Dream Chaser lifted high into the air, where the craft will then be released from its carrier aircraft and attempt an unmanned landing. During the course of this flight test program SNC will test out the space plane’s autoland and other capabilities.

The Dream Chaser space plane is derived from the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA. Photo Credit: SNC

“Sierra Nevada Space Systems is honored to be awarded an additional $25.6 million by NASA as part of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2), bringing the total award to $105.6 million for this round of the competition,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “As part of CCDev2, the Program has already completed four of the planned milestones, on time and on budget. The now thirteen CCDev2 milestones will culminate in a high-altitude free-flight test of our vehicle in the summer of 2012. ”

With NASA’s fleet of orbiters retired and being prepared to go on display in museums, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA currently pays Russia $63 million per seat for trips to the orbiting laboratory.

If all goes according to plan, the Dream Chaser could be one of many 'space-taxis' that would supply transportation services to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SNC

Many within both NewSpace and established space companies have stated their intent on reducing the amount of time that the U.S. is in such a position. NASA also has worked to assist companies that are working on CCDev2 to either meet or exceed their deadlines.
NASA is hopeful that these developments will allow the space agency to turn over transportation to the ISS to commercial firms by 2016.

In the case of SNC, NASA increased what the company was paid by an added $25.6 million. SNC had already been awarded $80 million as their part of the CCDev2 contract. After this boost in funding, SNC announced that the drop test would be held next summer.
The Dream Chaser design is based primarily off of the HL-20 lifting body design and is capable of carrying seven astronauts to orbit. Dream Chaser is designed to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 402.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is working steadily to test out and prove the Dream Chaser's various systems. Photo Credit: SNC

If everything goes according to how it is currently planned, the test flight will take place at either Edwards Air Force Base, located in California or White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo will carry the Dream Chaser space plane aloft for the test. Virgin Galactic, another NewSpace firm, is based in the U.S. and owned by Sir Richard Branson.

The ISS is viewed by the U.S, and the 15 other nations involved with the project as a crucial investment and having only one way to send crew to and from the ISS as being unacceptable. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is joined by Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 and Blue Origin’s as-yet unnamed spacecraft in the CCDev2 contract.

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

SpaceX: Next Dragon to Launch No-Earlier-Than Dec. 19

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – The launch date of the next Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon Spacecraft payload has been announced to occur no-earlier-than Dec. 19. This will mean that it will have been over a year since the last time that the NewSpace firm launched one of its rockets.

“NASA is working with SpaceX on our technical and safety data for this mission while coordinating with its international partners to sort out a launch schedule once a definitive decision is reached on the next Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. As a result, we’ve submitted December 19th to NASA and the Air Force as the first in a range of dates that we would be ready to launch,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham SpaceX’s Communications Director. “We recognize that a target launch date cannot be set until NASA gives us the green light as well as the partners involved in the International Space Station program make a decision on when to continue Soyuz flights. Our flight is one of many that have to be carefully coordinated, so the ultimate schedule of launches to the ISS is still under consideration.”

At a speech at the National Press Club on Thursday, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk also confirmed that the flight of Dragon will likely be delayed — perhaps until January — due to the failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress re-supply ship to the ISS on August 24, 2011.

“It actually will likely result in a delay to our launch to the ISS,” Musk said, “and NASA rightly wants to have the appropriate level of astronauts with the right training when we arrive, so it looks like January for the launch to space station, and that is contingent upon the Russians meeting the schedule they’ve currently stating.”

The Russian Space Agency has scheduled Progress launches on October 30, 2011, and January 26, 2012, with potential launches for the manned Soyuz-FG spacecraft on November 12 and December 20, 2011.

SpaceX's last launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, seen here, was on Dec. 8 and carried the first of the firm's Dragon spacecraft to orbit: Photo Credit: Alan walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX last launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Dec. 8 of last year. That launch saw the first flight of the company’s Dragon Spacecraft, which completed two orbits before splashing safely down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. This event marked the first time that a private entity had accomplished this feat. Up until that time only nations had sent and retrieved spacecraft from orbit.

Also during Musk’s speech on Sept. 29, he announced that SpaceX is developing the world’s first, fully-reusable rocket. Musk said that the development of this as-yet-unnamed rocket, if successful, would greatly reduce the cost of launching to orbit and open the doors to manned flights to Mars. But the SpaceX CEO cautioned that success was not guaranteed.

With the space shuttle fleet retired and being prepared for display in museums and tourist attractions, NASA is relying on many proposed commercial space taxis that, unlike the Dragon which has flown, have yet to be tested. Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation all have proposed designs to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth-orbit and the International Space Station.