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Dream Chaser to launch on Vulcan Centaur for NASA cargo missions

August 14, 2019

— A small commercial spaceplane contracted by NASA to bring cargo to and from the International Space Station now has its ride to orbit.

The Dream Chaser spacecraft, built and operated by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), will lift off on resupply missions to the orbiting laboratory on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rockets, officials with both companies announced Wednesday (Aug. 14). The uncrewed mini-space shuttle is expected to debut with the launch vehicle, now under development, in late 2021.

"This is bringing America's spaceplane and America's rocket together for best-of-breed innovation and exploration," said Fatih Ozmen, CEO of Sierra Nevada Corporation, at a press conference at SNC's Headquarters in Louisville, Colorado on Wednesday. "SNC selected ULA because of our strong collaboration on the Dream Chaser program, their proven safety record and on-time performance."

Dream Chaser is the first payload to be announced for the Vulcan Centaur, which is set to replace ULA's long-serving Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. In development since 2015, the Vulcan Centaur design incorporates legacy components from both reliable launch vehicles, while introducing new and upgraded hardware, including Blue Origin's BE-4 engine.

"This is one of the first contracts for our new Vulcan Centaur rocket and the first of the six missions will serve as our second certification flight," said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. "We are excited to bring our more than 120 years of combined launch experiences with our Atlas and Delta rockets which build on a progressive history of technology development and advancement to Vulcan Centaur."

The Dream Chaser-topped Vulcan Centaur will launch from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The 50-foot-long (15-meter) spacecraft will fly with its wings and solar arrays folded up against its body inside a five-meter payload fairing atop a Vulcan Centaur core equipped with four side-mounted solid rocket boosters.

Dream Chaser launches on Vulcan Centaur. Click to view and enlarge in pop-up window. (SNC)

NASA selected SNC's Dream Chaser in 2016 to fly six missions to the station under the Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS2) contract, which also extended cargo deliveries by SpaceX's Dragon and Northrop Grumman's (then Orbital ATK) Cygnus spacecraft. Dream Chaser will launch with up to 12,125 pounds (5,500 kilograms) of supplies on each flight and remain at the station for up to 75 days.

Dream Chaser is based on the design of NASA's HL-20 "horizontal lander" lifting body, which itself was reverse engineered from Russia's BOR-4 unpiloted orbital rocket plane of the 1980s. Unlike Northrop Grumman's Cygnus, which burns up on re-entry into the atmosphere, and SpaceX's Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean to be recovered, Dream Chaser flies to a touchdown on an airport runway.

For NASA's contracted missions, Dream Chaser will dispose about 7,000 pounds (3,250 kg) of refuse packed inside its expendable cargo module and return up to 4,235 pounds (1,925 kg) of science and equipment to Space Florida's Launch and Landing Facility (formerly NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SNC began construction of the Dream Chaser spacecraft in December 2018 and remains on target to be ready for a 2021 maiden launch. ULA recently completed the Vulcan Centaur structural test article at its Decatur, Alabama facility and took delivery of the major components of its Mobile Launch Platform at Complex 41 in Florida on Aug. 6.

Wednesday's announcement was the second time that SNC had announced its selection of a launch vehicle for the Dream Chaser. In July 2017, the company had said it had chosen ULA's Atlas V for the cargo spacecraft's first two missions to the space station. As part of SNC's new agreement with ULA, if there is an issue with the Vulcan Centaur or if the launch vehicle cannot meet NASA's schedule, Dream Chaser can revert to using the Atlas V.


Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser will launch atop United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket for its six NASA missions to resupply the International Space Station. (Sierra Nevada Corp.)

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