The Dream Chaser Project

Travelling to other stars is a cherished dream of mankind. However, the Earth and the nearest star are separated by enormous distances, and a space expedition with the participation of people seems unrealistic. Nevertheless, there is an engineering and scientific development in the sphere of cosmic technologies, which proves that the space expeditions are possible in the nearest future. It should be noted that in the space industry, there is a growing boom of spaceflights. Private companies appear on the market to develop space tourism and output commercial satellites for flight into a low Earth orbit. Advances in materials science, microelectronics and computer technologies of the flight control reduce the weight of the satellite and, accordingly, the unit cost of in-orbit delivery of 1 kilogram of payload.

History of the Spacecraft

Despite the fact that the spacecraft Dream Chaser is completely new, its history dates back much earlier. Dream Chase is actually a product of the Cold War. It is associated with military operations and spy planes, testing of US Air Force missiles and the secret developments of the Soviet Union in the space field. A successful program of the project M2-F1 significantly influenced the development of the space shuttles and gave a significant start to the development of inexpensive but efficient aircrafts and spacecrafts.

Dale Reed played an important role in the history of Dream Chaser. He was obsessed by flying. In 1960, Dale worked at Dryden Flight Research Center owned by NASA. At that time, as a young engineer of aeronautics, Dale Reed developed projects of aircrafts and spacecrafts for NASA. He came to the conclusion that the wings prevented the spacecraft to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They were not strong enough to withstand the speed of 32 000 kilometers per hour when entering the atmosphere. Dale Reed decided to change the shape of the spacecraft. Together with his colleagues, he decided that a form of a “bath” could become the most appropriate form for the return from the space. The wings had to be reduced and made more robust or removed completely.

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For three months, Dale Reed with his colleagues built the first spacecraft of a completely new form. The construction was composed of wood and metal. It cost $ 200,000. Later, on the basis of the spacecraft of the unusual shape, such popular models of space planes as M2-F2, X-24A, X-33 and even the legendary space shuttles were created. The technology of lofting airframe provided an aerodynamics effect, in which the lifting force was formed on the shell of an aircraft. In most cases, it is used for unloading the conventional wing. Furthermore, most of the lifting force was created only on the high-speed mode at large angles of attack (Shayler & Shayler, 2013).

The Dream Chaser Program

Dream Chaser, a reusable manned spacecraft, developed by US Sierra Nevada Corporation, is designed to deliver cargo and crews numbering up to seven people into a low Earth orbit. The length of the spacecraft Dream Chaser is 9 meters with wingspan of 7 meters. The mass of the ship is 11 340 kilogram. This spacecraft can easily float in the air. An airframe of a manned spacecraft Dream Chaser is made of durable composite materials with the use of ceramic thermal protection. Its maximum residence time on orbit does not exceed 210 days. This new concept of manned spacecraft replaces the old shuttles, which were withdrawn from service in 2011. “With the retirement of the Shuttle Program, SNC’s goal is to deliver a low-cost, safe alternative for transporting astronauts and cargo to the ISS and possibly to transport space tourists to orbital destination” (Seedhouse, 2014, p. 139-140). Dream Chaser has many advantages over the shuttles. It can start vertically using the rocket Atlas V or with air start using an aircraft White Knight Two as a carrier. In addition to planning, it will be able to perform self-controlled flight with the possibility of horizontal landing on any concrete runway length of at least 2.5 kilometers. “Capable of landing on a conventional runway, this design offers cross-range capability and reduced g-forces on descending occupants and payloads” (Shayler & Shayler, 2013, p. 277). The spacecraft Dream Chaser will be able to entertain space tourists, deliver astronauts and crew loads of around seven people into low-Earth orbit or to the International Space Station. The spacecraft Dream Chaser is designed to deliver US astronauts to the ISS, which is the biggest problem nowadays. Each flight to the ISS costs NASA about $ 70.7 million per person. For this purpose NASA uses the Russian spaceship Soyuz. “Because the Dram Chaser glides back to Earth, it is a much more comfortable option than the Soyuz; if you land in a Soyuz, you will be pounded by more than 4 Gs, whereas the elegant Dream Chaser experiences less than 1.5 Gs on re-entry” (Seedhouse, 2014, p. 140). Output of commercial satellites is also possible. Moreover, the spacecraft does not need any special infrastructure in order to land. Dream Chaser can land on any runway capable of receiving commercial airliners. In addition, Sierra Nevada developed engines for SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 received the Ansari X-Prise as the first private aircraft, which had overcome the Karmen Line.

In 2004, it was announced about the project of the American spacecraft for the first time. In addition, it was a task of private commercial structures to create a new spaceship. SpaceDev was selected as the main contractor according to the comparison results of the preliminary draft. According to the technical task, the spaceship Dream Chaser should go into space with the launch vehicle Atlas V, dock with all existing and future spacecrafts and come down to Earth in the same way as the Space Shuttle. Due to a smaller size and the lack of the need for a special technique for launching on orbit (the rocket Atlas V is unified with previous rockets of Atlas), the cost of cargo and people delivery into the orbit will be several times less than that of existing equipment, including shuttles (Bizony, 2014).

Initially, as the basis for the project Dream Chaser, its creators considered an experimental apparatus X-34. However, just one year after the start, the basic design has been changed. SpaceDev received the program documentation of the HL-20. The spacecraft was constructed on the basis of the orbital plane the HL-20, owned by NASA. This project of the beginning of the 90s had exactly the same objectives as Dream Chaser. Nevertheless, after a few years, it was closed due to a number of technical and technological problems. SpaceDev engineers have considered all the shortcomings of the previous version of space shuttle and could bring Dream Chaser from the stage of the design work. It is noteworthy that to some extent, the HL-20 and the subsequent Dream Chaser outwardly remind of the Soviet apparatus BOR, which were created during the project “Spiral”. Moreover, it is not a manifestation of plagiarism of foreign developments. Both BOR and Hl-20 were designed for the use in similar conditions. This fact affected the substantial similarity of external contours.

During the development of Dream Chaser, SpaceDev designers faced two major challenges. Firstly, a small size of the spacecraft required a relatively powerful compact engine. Secondly, the same weight and size limitations caused certain difficulties in creating a strong heat resistant and light airframe made of composite materials. In 2010, it was announced about the successful resolution of both issues. Therefore, as the power-plant for Dream Chaser, namely a new hybrid rocket engine was selected. It was developed and tested in the middle of the same year. In addition, the designers managed to solve successfully the problem of the airframe. For this purpose, they used a combined metal structure.

The project Dream Chaser was one of the candidates to receive funding from the NASA program Commercial Crew Development, according to which it is planned to find an effective vehicle for the US space industry. However, the project Dream Chaser did not pass the selection at the first stage of the competition of NASA projects. NASA gave preference to more familiar capsular ships, in which a landing capsule returns to Earth, and not the spacecraft. The capsule ships CST-100 of the company Boeing and Dragon V2 of the company SpaceX were selected. In 2008, the American company SpaceDev, which was engaged in the development and construction of a manned spacecraft Dream Chaser was acquired by Sierra Nevada Corporation and became one of its subsidiaries. Sierra Nevada Corporation continued the development of the space plane. “It continued development of the Dream Chaser vehicle as part of NASA’s subsequent Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program” (Johnson, 2013, p. 34).Sierra Nevada Corporation has recently held a successful test of a pulsating jet engine, which allows a very precise positioning of the aircraft on the Earth’s orbit.

In February 2010, the Sierra Nevada received a grant of $ 20 million from NASA for revision and improvement of the project Dream Chaser considering that this device still had great potential. In 2011, the US space agency decided to allocate another $ 80 million for the completion of the project. Representatives of NASA were perfectly aware that a new spacecraft will be able to deliver cargo and astronauts on board of the International Space Station replacing the effective US space shuttles (Johnson, 2013).

The partner of Sierra Nevada became a well-known defense and aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The latter is involved in the construction of the second prototype of the spacecraft Dream Chaser. The company Lockheed Martin develops a second spacecraft Dream Chaser on its own production site in Louisiana. At the same time, fuel tanks for the space shuttle are produced. Lockheed Martin is not exactly a newcomer in the space technology, because it is in conjunction with the Boeing Company involved in the construction of rockets Atlas V, which is designed in such a way that they can withdraw into space both the spaceship Dream Chaser and CST-100 of the company Boeing. The second copy of the spacecraft Dream Chaser can be used for suborbital test flights. Sierra Nevada and Lockheed Martin should have time to complete the entire program by 2017. It is a year when NASA officially chooses two companies that will be engaged in the delivery of astronauts and cargo to low Earth orbit (Johnson, 2013).

Testing of the Spaceship

Since the beginning of 2011, the employees of Sierra Nevada and NASA prepared for production of prototypes of a new spaceship and tested models in the wind tunnels. It allowed improving the design. In particular, according to purging, it was possible to reduce thermal loads on some portion of the airframe. In 2012, the completion of all the preliminary tests on prototypes as well as the beginning of preparation for the next stage of the project was announced. In the middle of May, a full-size prototype of Dream Chaser was delivered to the NASA test center in Colorado. May 29, during the NASA proving ground near the airport Rocky Mountain Metropolitan (Broomfield, CO), there was the first test flight of Dream Chaser. A full-size mock of the spacecraft was lifted into the air by helicopter Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane. After that, within an hour of flight, the testers checked it aerodynamics under real conditions. Trial flights were arranged to check the aerodynamics characteristics of the spacecraft and perfect management systems in the Earth’s atmosphere. To conduct inspections of the management system during the flight in the atmosphere, it was equipped with radio and full steering equipment. During the first flight, the testers familiarized with the nuances of control Dream Chaser and expressed their views. According to available information, the testers were generally satisfied with control of the spaceship (Shayler & Shayler, 2013).

The First Test Flight of Dream Chaser

October 26, 2013, there was the first trial free flight of Dream Chaser. The spacecraft with the help of a helicopter was lifted to a height of about 4 kilometers and dropped down. Its task was to reach the runway independently and make an automatic landing. The duration of the flight had to be about a minute. After separation from the helicopter, Dream Chaser successfully reached the airport, perfectly straightened out the axis of the band, and began to land. However, for some reasons, the left landing gear did not come out in the spacecraft, and after touching the track, it keeled over on its side and slid into the desert. “The landing gear door remained closed as the result of contamination in the hydraulic fluid that was used to power the system” (Al-Ekabi, Baranes, Hulsroj & Lahcen, 2015, p. 183). When the experts began to inspect the spacecraft, they found that the cabin was not damaged, and all the equipment was working correctly.

The Contract with NASA

Sierra Nevada Corporation, together with Boeing and SpaceX are working with NASA in a public and private sectors using a combination of initial investment by NASA and funds of the companies. Every corporation received a contract by NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, the third in a series of contracts directed at launching the development of a space taxi of the private sector for flights of US astronauts and partners to or from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The main purpose of the program is to guarantee the fact that the state has an affordable, effective and secure transportation system of crews into space. The program consists of two phases. A contract of the second phase will ultimately lead to real flying machines after the selection of one or more companies. All three commercial spacecrafts – Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 – are designed for the transport of the crew consisting of seven astronauts, in order to remain docked to the ISS for more than 6 months.

In 2014, the project Dream Chaser was one of three candidates for funding the NASA’s next phase of the Commercial Crew Development. However, it was not selected. It is believed that the main reason for which the US space agency refused to finance the spacecraft was the complexity of the project as compared to the capsular vessels as well as poor drafting. In addition, it is possible that lobbying power of the giant of the American industry, namely corporation Boeing, also played a significant role. Boeing received a contract for the spacecraft CST-100.

In the first part of the year, the representatives of Sierra Nevada stated that the company will try to continue the project, even in the case of the contract loss by NASA. Notwithstanding, it is obvious that a small Nevada company does not have enough funds to create a full-fledged spacecraft. September 30, the company introduced a scaled version of the spacecraft Dream Chaser, which can be put into orbit by means of air-start of the company Stratolaunch Systems. This system involves start of a small rocket from an airplane, but not from the ground spaceport. The owner of the company Stratolaunch Systems is a co-founder of Microsoft whose name is Paul Allen.

A new version of the winged spacecraft SNC can lift into orbit up to three astronauts, while the first version of the ship housed seven people. In addition, it can be used to deliver satellites into space as well as for ultra-fast suborbital transport of goods between two points of the globe. Vice President of Stratolaunch Systems, Chuck Bimes, believes that combining the features of a smaller version of the Dream Chaser spacecraft with the possibilities of the air-launched system of his company has great potential and will provide special launch of astronauts or goods in the shortest possible time, namely up to 24 hours (Johnson, 2014).

The first orbital test flight of the Dream Chaser is not expected until 2016. “Designed to be launched into space on the nose of a rocket, Dream Chaser will be sent to orbit in 2016, sitting on top of a powerful Atlas V rocket” (Seedhouse, 2014, p. 140). However, , flight may be delayed in the future if the Congress cuts back NASA’s budget. William Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator of NASA, reported that the unique partnership between the government and the private sector as that between NASA and the corporation Sierra Nevada creates the industry that is capable of building the next generation of rockets and spacecraft carrying US astronauts to the scientific test range at low Earth orbit. He is sure that the first flight of the spacecraft Dream Chaser will surely occur (Seedhouse, 2014).

Future Plans

The first space flight of the spacecraft Dream Chaser is now scheduled in 2016. For a start, the carrier rocket Atlas V will be used the development of which is being completed now. The first orbital flights will be in automatic mode. During the first flights, Dream Chaser will carry the loads. However, maximum payload is not yet known. The volume of the cargo compartment will be 16 cubic meters. In the future, if the project runs appropriately, the people will rise on board of the spacecraft. Currently, there are several seats for the crew. In perspective, according to statements of representatives of the developer company, configuration of a cargo-passenger cabin of Dream Chaser allows changing the number of transported people and goods depending on the need. At the same time, there should be always two people on board, actually the crew, during the manned flights.

Conclusion

A few years ago, the prospects of private space were very vague. It is not surprising, since the development associated with the launch of the spacecrafts is extremely expensive and the smallest errors lead to catastrophic consequences. Therefore, from the beginning of spaceflights and until recently, the space industry was not highly developed in many countries. However, the situation has changed. In the space age, there is undoubtedly a tipping point. The initiative of states in the space race intercepted the private sector, and it cannot pass without a trace. The space industry is becoming more open and commercial as well as less bureaucratic and old-fashioned. Therefore, private space is not fiction nowadays. Dream Chaser is a vivid example. For representatives of NASA as well as for the US government, a mini- apparatus Dream Chaser has become embodiment of a dream, to which high hopes are assigned. This compact manned spacecraft can surpass the opportunities of the legendary space shuttles and, at the same time, it will constantly remind people of them.