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Space plane’s schedule slips due to COVID

Sierra Nevada Corp. is closing in on the orbital debut of its Dream Chaser space plane, but the curtain-raiser will be later than previously planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company had planned to send its first space-worthy Dream Chaser, dubbed Tenacity, on its first uncrewed cargo run to the International Space Station next year.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“We’re targeting 2022 for first flight,” Steve Lindsey, SNC Space Systems’ senior vice president of strategy, told me today during a videoconference for journalists. “We’ve obviously dealt with a lot of challenges this year. Like COVID, as an example. There’s been a challenge for everybody.”

Lindsey cited a case involving a series of tests that were due to be conducted on the Dream Chaser’s Shooting Star cargo module in San Diego. “Unfortunately, due to COVID, our entire test team … got basically kicked out of the plant when they had some exposures.”

Eventually, Lindsey and the Dream Chaser team worked out an arrangement for having the structural tests done in San Diego, and getting the telemetry sent to engineers working remotely at SNC Space Systems’ home base in Colorado.

“That worked great,” Lindsey said. “Unfortunately, it also took probably three or four times as long as it normally should have, just because of the COVID challenges we’ve had.”

Now the cargo module is back in Colorado, and the stubby-winged space plane – which has been compared to a mini-space shuttle – is being assembled. “We’re running two shifts a day right now, we’ll probably be going to three here shortly, to get this thing built as quickly as we can,” Lindsey said.

After the assembly and integration tasks are complete, Tenacity will be shipped to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio for environmental and thermal vacuum testing. Then it’s off to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a final round of tests, leading up to launch atop United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

Dream Chaser Tenacity had been penciled in as the second payload to be launched on a Vulcan in 2021, after Astrobotic’s NASA-funded cargo delivery to the moon. That schedule will shift – but Lindsey said the precise date is up in the air. “That’s something we work with NASA internally, and it’s a combination of when we’re ready, when our testing is done, also when NASA needs it,” he said.

Click on the pictures for a Sierra Nevada Corp. slideshow:

Sierra Nevada Corp. won NASA’s nod to deliver cargo to the space station back in 2016, when the space agency was awarding a second round of resupply contracts. The other winners were SpaceX and Orbital ATK (which is now part of Northrop Grumman). Those two companies already send shipments to the station, which will make the Dream Chaser the newest addition to NASA’s commercial cargo fleet.

Dream Chaser is the only winged space cargo vehicle capable of coming back from orbit and making an autonomous glider-style landing on a runway. That provides a capability that SpaceX’s Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsules lack. Time-sensitive experiments can be quickly offloaded and sent where they need to go.

“Maybe it’s a little biased because of having been a shuttle astronaut, but I just really love the practical way that you could come back from space in a space plane, land on a runway,” said former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi, who is now SNC Space Systems’ executive vice president. ” You could walk right up to the vehicle, take your delicate payloads off and go do your scientific analysis.”

Lindsey said the Dream Chaser is built to be used for 15 missions during its operating lifetime, which should help satisfy the station’s cargo needs for years to come. There’s also a second space plane in production that could be used for space station resupply as well as standalone space missions – such as the international mission being planned under the auspices of the United Nations.

Dream Chaser’s design is based on a NASA concept from the 1980s, known as the HL-20. Sierra Nevada Corp. first offered the plane for NASA’s use as a crewed vehicle a decade ago, and the company hasn’t given up on the idea of flying crew as well as cargo.

Lindsey pointed out that the cargo version and the crew version have 85% of their design in common.

“As we’ve matured the cargo version to where we are now, where we’re in production, we know the path back to crew,” he said. “Our intent is always to go back to crew someday. When that day is, I’m not sure yet right now … But we have plans for doing that.”

Here’s a 2011 clip about my turn in the Dream Chaser simulator:

In other developments:

  • Neeraj Gupta, director of programs for SNC’s Advanced Development Group, highlighted the company’s work on inflatable habitats that could be assembled into a commercial space station in low Earth orbit. “We consider it a shining city in space, if you will,” he said. The habitats, developed in partnership with ILC Dover, could also support missions to the moon or Mars, Gupta said.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. is also one of three companies that received study contracts from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit to look at the options for an “Unmanned Orbital Outpost” that could be used for experiments and logistical demonstrations. SNC would adapt the Dream Chaser’s Shooting Star cargo module for the Pentagon’s purposes. “We’re still working with the DIU team and we’re looking to continue the development,” Gupta said.
  • Tom Crabb, vice president of SNC’s Propulsion and Environmental Systems business unit, discussed the company’s “Astro Garden” plant growth system, which recently grew tomatoes in a simulated space station environment. SNC’s aeroponics technology is due to be tested on the International Space Station next year. Eventually, the system could be used to grow berries, beans and other staples for space crews. “We have our own Matt Damon,” Crabb joked, in reference to the potato-farming astronaut in a 2015 movie titled “The Martian.”
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. provided further detail about a $2.4 million contract to demonstrate a process for extracting oxygen from lunar soil, awarded by NASA’s Tipping Point program. The process, known as carbothermal reduction, concentrates heat into the soil within a methane gas environment. In a news release, CEO Fatih Ozmen said the technology is “the result of decades of research and development work that is focused on both reducing launch mass from Earth, drastically reducing mission costs, and enabling long-term activity in low Earth orbit, cislunar [space] and Mars.”

Check out Sierra Nevada Corp.’s interactive presentation on the Dream Chaser space plane and Shooting Star transport vehicle.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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