In late 2013, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) funded a study to investigate how Europe might take advantage of Dream Chaser technology.
“Dream Chaser” is the name given to a possible future reusable crewed suborbital and orbital lifting-body spaceplane. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has been working toward development of the vehicle for some time.
In its latest embodiment the Dream Chaser is designed to carry up to seven people to and from low-earth orbit.
In order to achieve orbit, the vehicle must employ a launch vehicle. Current interfaces are designed to match the Atlas V. Thus, liftoffs will be vertical, but returns will use horizontally landings on conventional runways.
The basic lifting-body design has a long history. We have to go back more half a century to the 1957 X-20 Dyna-Soar concept to find its origins. The design has evolved such that it is now similar to NASA’s 1990 HL-20 lifting body, which is also similar to the 1980s Soviet BOR-4.
The Dream Chaser concept was proposed for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program but was not selected.
SpaceDev, the originator of the concept, continued to pursue Dream Chaser applications, and in 2007, announced that it had partnered with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to pursue the use of the Atlas V launch vehicle for placing Dream Chaser into orbit. At about the same time, SpaceDev signed a Space Act agreement with NASA. Such agreements allow NASA to partner with non-government entities in order to exchange ideas and technologies.
For example, these agreements allow companies to use NASA technologies and expertise while giving the agency access to otherwise sensitive industrial technologies and processes.
When the founder of SpaceDev, Jim Benson, died in 2008, SNC acquired the company, and in 2010 was awarded $20 million in seed money under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) phase 1 program for the further development of Dream Chaser.
For the CCDev phase 2 solicitation NASA awarded another $80 million to SNC for continued Dream Chaser development. In 2012, NASA awarded $212.5 million to SNC to continue work on Dream Chaser under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program.
In late 2013, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) funded a study to investigate how Europe might take advantage of Dream Chaser technology. Early this year, SNC announced that a Dream Chaser orbital test vehicle will perform an orbital test flight using an Atlas V in late 2016. This appears to be a private arrangement funded directly by SNC.
In a late event, just two weeks ago, NASA rejected SNC’s proposal to use Dream Chaser in the next phase of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program.
Last week, SNC filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to NASA’s awards to Boeing and SpaceX. SNC claims its Dream Chaser system offers substantial cost savings over the two other bidders.
In a statement, SNC said one of the two selected contracts “would result in a substantial increased cost to the public despite near equivalent technical and past performance scores.” Clearly, the loss of this opportunity may prove to be a significant blow to SNC’s future Dream Chaser prospects. Stay tuned.