By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the final article in a four-part series on the history of spaceplanes and modern iterations of spaceplane technology.
Unlike the two space planes discussed in previous parts of this series, the Sierra Nevada Space Systems (also known as “Sierra Nevada Corporation” or “SNC”) Dream Chaser is designed for orbital flight. It was actually intended to be a resupply vehicle for the International Space Station (ISS) with both pressurized and unpressurized cargo compartments. There is also a version of the planned Dream Chaser that will accommodate crewed missions, carrying as many as seven people per trip.
Also, unlike the other space planes discussed, the Dream Chaser is not capable of its own orbital ascent. The craft is designed to launch vertically as cargo within an Atlas V, Ariane 5, or Falcon Heavy Rocket payload bay. Once in orbit, it is equipped with rocket engines for orienting itself and navigating rendezvouses with the ISS or other orbital destinations.
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The original engine design was a liquid rocket that used the same HTPB fuel as SpaceShipTwo; in fact, SNC was the subcontractor used by Virgin Galactic for designing and manufacturing the SpaceShipTwo engines. However, in 2014 SNC acquired another rocket engine company called Orbitec LLC, and the Dream Chaser rocket engine was changed to a propane and nitrous oxide propellant design.
The Dream Chaser Will Return in Glider Fashion, Just Like the Space Shuttle
On re-entry, the Dream Chaser will return in glider fashion, just like the Space Shuttle and the other spaceplanes discussed in this series. Its designers have touted that passengers should experience no more than 1.5Gs of force on re-entry, which is impressive considering the Dream Chaser will re-enter the atmosphere at orbital velocities. For thermal protection, it will reportedly use an ablative tile developed by NASA that can be replaced as one entire unit rather than having to replace individual tiles as they are damaged.
Exact investment figures for Dream Chaser have not been published, Dream Chaser has not yet had a commercial flight, but it has completed several glide tests and in 2016 it joined SpaceX, Cygnus, and Boeing in being awarded a NASA contract worth $200 million+ for six ISS resupply missions.
There’s been significant development and evolution of space planes since the early days of the USAF X-15. As we’ve seen, the XCOR Lynx, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, and the Sierra Nevada Space Systems Dream Chaser all represent major leaps from their predecessors in technology and innovation. And although, the future certainly looks bright for this category of spacecraft.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.