March 1, 2024

Dream Chaser undergoes NASA tests before first flight

Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser vehicle is one step closer to launching in the first half of 2024 after testing at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility, formerly known as Plum Brook Station, in Ohio.

NSF was among a select group of media members who had access to the vibration test chamber where the vehicle completed testing.

For the first time, Tenacity, the first Dream Chaser vehicle scheduled to fly into space, was attached to its payload module called Shooting Star. According to Sierra Space, the cargo module is capable of carrying 4,000 kilograms (9,000 pounds) of cargo internally. It also contains three external attachment points for additional cargo and/or experiments.

The spacecraft configuration will be the same during launch atop United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket on the vehicle’s first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this year.

Dream Chaser was selected by NASA as part of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts to regularly send science, supplies and more to the ISS. The winged spacecraft joins SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus vehicle in this contract.

The vehicle will also become the second resupply ship to offer mass reduction capability, meaning it can return time-sensitive scientific experiments and research samples to Earth. Following your mission on the ISS, Tenacity is scheduled to land at the launch and landing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The company also discussed the potential for landing operations at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, with the potential to land at other airports in the future.

Phil Dempsey of NASA’s ISS program is excited not only by the amount of mass up and down, but also by how that mass is being bounced back.

The Dream Chaser flight test article arrives on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California, during an initial approach and landing test. (Credit: Espaço Sierra)

“Dream Chaser will deliver more than 7,800 pounds of payload on its first 45-day mission, with the potential to increase that on future missions as we learn more about how the vehicle flies,” Dempsey said. “So I have to say I’m a little excited just because on a personal level, seeing a winged vehicle return to the space station, land on the runway, but also my current job, transporting over 3,000 pounds of our research and cargo back at the same time.”

Dempsey referred to the space shuttle, which helped build the orbital laboratory and transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS until the program’s retirement in 2011.

At the moment, Tenacity is located inside the mechanical vibration installation.

“Over the past few weeks, we have been testing the spacecraft’s vibration, analyzing it in both the horizontal and vertical directions,” said NASA Glenn Director Dr. James Kenyon. “This allows us to simulate the vibration environment the spacecraft will experience during launch and as it begins to re-enter the atmosphere near the end of the flight.”

The wiring used during testing is attached to the top of the vehicle. (Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF)

With vibration testing complete, the vehicle will now move to NASA’s Glenn Space Propulsion Facility just down the road. According to NASA, this is the only facility in the world capable of testing full-scale launch vehicles and upper-stage rockets in a space environment.

“For the Dream Chaser… we will reduce the pressure and temperature to the very low pressures and temperatures that the spacecraft will experience upon entering orbit,” Kenyon said. “So we’re going to use a dynamic heating element to simulate the heating environment that would be experienced by the spacecraft due to the sun, solar heating, while it’s in orbit. These ground tests will allow us to reduce risk to the program and identify and resolve issues before launch.”

The vehicle will then be transferred to the Kennedy Space Center to undergo launch preparations.

Ahead of its launch, Sierra Space has been working with astronauts on the details of the vehicle, as well as how to use it in orbit.

A view behind Tenacity on the Dream Chaser’s folded wings. (Credit: Trevor Sesnic for NSF)

“Together, we have already trained our astronauts to see what it is like to have the Dream Chaser on the ISS,” said Dempsey. “We are planning joint operations and we are doing so as our engineers work hand in hand with the Sierra Space team to complete the final phase of integration, testing and preparation of this vehicle.”

When asked about the number of ISS flights, Sierra Space officials said it is a joint decision between their company and NASA.

“As we move forward, looking to get through the rest of the decade, we will take a look at the capabilities as well as the needs of the ISS, and we will determine them,” said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice. “So there is no set plan for the cadence needed beyond that, but we do not fly beyond the needs of the space station.”

However, the company is still planning several flights to Tenacity as well as a second vehicle, Reverencecurrently under construction.

The name of the vehicle painted on the vehicle’s thermal plates. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

“We designed [each vehicle] for 15 missions, but we think we will be well above that”, said Vice. “Tenacity it’s the first, Reverence It’s going to the factory, so we think we’ll be able to deliver on that, not just for NASA, but long-term in terms of how we think about the commercialization of the workforce.”

Sierra Space said the current plan is to fly Tenacity on the first four flights, with flight five being the debut of the Reverence.

The company is also considering launching in locations outside the United States.

“We had a lot of discussions about launching from Japan and landing at the airport, launching in other areas of the world that have the right launch latitudes, and landing on runways in those locations,” Vice said. “This gives us a huge advantage in terms of how we think about the beginning of this new space age. It can’t just be from one or two sites in the United States. It has to be global.”

Vice noted that we are in what he calls the orbital era, as the commercialization of low Earth orbit becomes more popular and more affordable.

A view of the bottom of the Dream Chaser, including sections where blocks are missing. (Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF)

“The orbital era is an existential revolution driven by the underlying technologies that are commercializing low-Earth orbit, connecting in new ways the surface of our planet to 250 miles above our heads,” said Vice. “Existing companies across all segments of the biotechnology and industrial sectors will operate the factories of the future in microgravity, extending our cities and communities into space.

“In the orbital era, the number of humans in space will reach critical mass and establish a permanent presence for civilizations around the world to continue the incredible leadership that NASA has demonstrated decade after decade after decade aboard the International Space Station. Collectively, NASA and Sierra Space, we go to space to benefit life on Earth.”

(Main image: Dream Chaser undergoes testing at NASA Glenn. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

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