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Dream Chaser
The Dream Chaser mini-shuttle has won NASA’s backing. (Credit: NASA / SNC Space Systems)

NASA says it will add Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space glider to its cargo-carrying lineup of robotic spaceships as early as 2019. It’s likely to be the first winged vehicle to fly in orbit for NASA since the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

“Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems, said in a statement about the Dream Chaser’s selection.

During a televised briefing today, NASA officials said it also will continue to use SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsules to resupply the International Space Station in the 2019-2024 time frame. By that time, the Dragon could well be capable of touching down on land.

The upgrades in SpaceX’s robotic Dragon, along with the addition of the Dream Chaser, are expected to bring new capabilities to NASA’s orbital delivery system. Today, Dragon capsules are designed to splash down in the ocean, and it can take days to get Earth-bound cargo in NASA’s hands. But by 2019, shipments could be delivered from space to NASA in as little as three hours.

“That rapid return … is really valuable,” Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the space station program, told GeekWire. “And the soft landing is also valuable.”

Robinson said getting samples back quickly – and getting them back gently – will make a big difference for biomedical studies that involve live organisms. For example, it’s been challenging to study how zero-G affects the virulence of microbial infections, because the fast turnaround for sample return hasn’t been available since the shuttles stopped flying.

Soft landings are also important for experiments that focus on protein crystal growth for pharmaceuticals, she said.

Having a winged vehicle in the mix will diversify the options for delivering space station cargo, said NASA space station program manager Kirk Shireman. The need for that diversity was evident over the past year and a half, when failed rocket launches temporarily grounded both SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus.

SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been flying tons of cargo to the space station since 2012, and they’ll continue to ship space payloads under their existing contracts until 2019, when the newly announced deals take effect.

Years ago, Sierra Nevada offered the Dream Chaser as an option for carrying crew to the space station and received millions of dollars in development funding from NASA. But in 2014, NASA passed over the Dream Chaser for crewed flights and went with SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner instead. This time around, Boeing missed getting a piece of the cargo contract – as did Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor for NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule.

Shireman said the detailed reasons behind the cargo spaceship selection would be laid out in a document to be released later. He said price was a factor in choosing contractors, but not the only factor.

Shireman declined to say how much NASA would pay for each flight – in part because of competitive reasons, and in part because the flight options varied so widely. But he did note that the maximum value of the contracts was set at $14 billion before the competition. “I can tell you the mix of flights we’re looking at is nowhere near that value,” Shireman added.

About four flights would be conducted annually over the course of the five-year contract period. Each of the three suppliers is guaranteed six flight orders, Shireman said. No orders have been placed yet, he said.

Every flight will be capable of carrying 2.5 to 5 tons of cargo, which should cut down on the number of flights required for resupply, Shireman said.

The Dragon and the Dream Chaser are capable of sending cargo into space as well as bringing cargo back to Earth. The Cygnus isn’t built to come back down to Earth, but after an orbital delivery, it can be used to get rid of space trash.

SpaceX plans to continue launching the robotic Dragon from Florida on its Falcon 9 rocket. Orbital ATK is offering the option of launching the Cygnus from Virginia on its Antares rocket, or from Florida on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

In contrast with the Dragon and the Cygnus, the Dream Chaser is still under development and has not yet flown in space. So far, Sierra Nevada has flown only one atmospheric gliding test of the craft under autonomous control. Similar tests are planned for this year. Before the Dream Chaser flies cargo for NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to give it a license for space launches, Shireman said.

Dream Chaser with cargo module
An artist’s conception shows Sierra Nevada’s uncrewed version of the Dream Chaser space glider in orbit with a cargo module attached at the back.

With its 23-foot wingspan, the Dream Chaser looks like a miniaturized version of the space shuttle. The design is based on a lifting-body concept that was developed for NASA in the 1990s, known as the HL-20.

The Dream Chaser would be launched into space from Florida on an Atlas 5, with folded wings that spread out in orbit. When it carries cargo back down from the space station, the craft could glide to a landing on Kennedy Space Center’s runway in Florida – or on any other runway of sufficient length. For example, Sierra Nevada has an agreement with Houston’s Ellington Airport that could someday result in landings near NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The privately held company, which is headquartered in Nevada but runs its space systems division out of Colorado, has made deals with scores of other partners and suppliers around the world to form what it calls an aerospace “Dream Team.”

Independent space consultant Charles Lurio said the winged Dream Chaser should be a welcome addition to the commercial space cargo fleet. “It has certain assets,” he told GeekWire. “It’s good to have more than one type of vehicle, and it’s also a gentler ride down.”

Update for 8:25 a.m. PT Jan. 15: When I wrote that the Dream Chaser could be the first winged vehicle to fly in orbit since the space shuttles, I neglected to take the Boeing X-37B space plane into account. That uncrewed spacecraft has conducted several test flights for the U.S. Air Force over the past few years. In fact, there’s one up there now. Thanks to GeekWire commenter HenstridgeSJ for setting me straight. I’ve updated this report to add the required qualifier.

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