Spaceflight Insider

Sierra Nevada prepares for crucial Dream Chaser tests

SNC technicians inspect the Dream Chaser ETA.

SNC technicians inspect the Dream Chaser ETA. Photo Credit: SNC

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), a company working to develop the crew-rated Dream Chaser spacecraft, has announced improvements to the mini space shuttle – as well as tests the vehicle is poised to undertake. Despite the fact the orbiter has been passed over by NASA, other space agencies are closely monitoring Dream Chaser – for planned use in their own efforts into the black.

SNC currently has two Dream Chaser vehicles in its fleet: the atmospheric engineering test article (ETA) and the advanced composite orbital vehicle. According to the company’s statement, both spacecraft will undergo suborbital as well as orbital flight tests in 2016.

Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser space shuttle design for Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract SNC Lockheed Martin image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

SNC is prepping a test article of its Dream Chaser spacecraft for an orbital test flight. Image Credit: SNC / Lockheed Martin

“The Dream Chaser ETA is currently scheduled to arrive at Armstrong Flight Research Center in early 2016 in order to begin the second phase of atmospheric flight test,” said Mark. N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Space Systems, a division of SNC.

The first phase of flight tests was started in May of 2013 when the ETA was shipped to the Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

That phase of the spacecraft’s testing included tow, captive-carry and free-flight tests of the Dream Chaser. In October 2013, the first free-flight test occurred. The test vehicle was released from a “skycrane” helicopter, and flew the correct flightpath to touchdown less than a minute later. ETA successfully returned trajectory data of the flight profile. This test was not perfect, however, with a failure of a non-flight version of the landing gear  causing the vehicle, in some reports, to skid off the runway and, in others, to flip end-over-end (no video has been made available).

SNC emphasizes that since flight test phase one, the company has made significant structural and systems improvements to the ETA including the composite wings and aeroshells.

“SNC also invested heavily in maturing the spacecraft orbital avionics, guidance navigation and control, the flight software, and employed a number of new processes, all of which will be used on the orbital vehicle as well. Finally, the advanced orbital Thermal Protection System (TPS), announced in June, was installed on the ETA skid in order to do advanced testing of the actual orbital TPS in this important area,” the company stated through a press release issued on Oct. 7, 2015.

The TPS tests were completed at NASA’s Ames Research Center and Johnson Space Center under reimbursable Space Act Agreements (SAA). The tests provided critical data needed to support the upcoming TPS subsystem Critical Design Review (CDR) and to validate Dream Chaser’s TPS manufacturing readiness.

The TPS is responsible for protecting crew members and cargo from the high temperatures the spacecraft will experience during re-entry. Additional TPS certification testing is also planned at the centers beginning in the fall of 2015.

Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser Commercial Resupply Services 2 payload fairing SNC image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The CRS version of Dream Chaser will have foldable wings. Image Credit: SNC

SNC has also made significant progress in the construction of the first Dream Chaser orbital vehicle manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

“Lockheed Martin is leveraging best practices in tooling and composites to manufacture the first orbital Dream Chaser spacecraft,” Sirangelo said.

The reusable Dream Chaser spacecraft was designed to carry up to seven crew and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit (LEO), including the transportation of NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

It is designed to be capable of free flight in LEO as well as docking to the ISS and other orbital destinations (at present, the ISS is the only LEO destination).

The vehicle’s design is derived from NASA’s HL-20 spacecraft. According to SNC, the Dream Chaser will provide a re-entry around 1.5 g, which is considerably less than existing return systems for orbital re-entry, making the vehicle ideal for sensitive payloads, comfortable crew re-entries, and medical emergencies.

The first orbital test flight of the Dream Chaser orbital test vehicle is currently planned for Nov. 1, 2016, launching on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida.

Lockheed Martin has recently completed assembly of the vehicle’s cabin, marking a significant milestone in the construction of this spacecraft. According to SNC, this assembly is “the largest high-temperature unitized structure ever fabricated at U.S. Air Force Plant 4, a government-owned, contractor-operated aerospace facility in Fort Worth, Texas.”

“The assembly utilized three-dimensional woven joints, to integrate internal frames with external carbon skins in a single co-bond operation, meaning nearly all fasteners on this critical cabin assembly are eliminated. This state-of-the-art approach to design and manufacturing is a highly efficient and affordable design solution,” the company noted.

The first completed piece of the orbital test vehicle’s composite airframe was unveiled at the Lockheed Martin Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana in August of 2014.

Sirangelo believes that the orbital version of vehicle will be the most advanced composite structure that has ever been built. He looks forward to Dream Chaser becoming the world leader in this area and to its first orbital flight.

The company is now focusing on winning NASA’s Cargo Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract, as it lost the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) competition to SpaceX and Boeing in September 2014. Boeing won $4.2 billion and SpaceX won $2.6 billion to complete and certify their respective Starliner and Dragon spacecraft by 2017. SNC is now proposing its Dream Chaser Cargo System for the CRS-2 contract.

The contract includes delivery of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the orbiting laboratory, as well as return and disposal of pressurized cargo, disposal of unpressurized cargo, and ground support services for the end-to-end resupply mission.

To meet the requirements under the CRS-2 guidelines, the cargo Dream Chaser will feature foldable wings, to fit within a 16 ft. (roughly 5 meters) cargo fairing. This version will also be different than the passenger version of Dream Chaser, which did not use a cargo fairing. The ability to fit in a cargo fairing will allow launches from an Ariane 5 as well as the Atlas V.

Besides SNC, four other companies submitted their proposals under CRS 2: SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. The announcement of the CRS-2 contract winners is scheduled to take place on Nov. 5, 2015.

SNC’s Space Systems is based in Louisville, Colorado. It designs and manufactures advanced spacecraft, space vehicles, rocket motors and spacecraft subsystems, and components for the U.S. Government, commercial customers, as well as for the international market. SNC’s Space Systems has more than 25 years of space heritage and has participated in over 400 successful space missions through the delivery of over 4,000 systems, subsystems, and components. During its history, SNC’s Space Systems has concluded over 70 programs for NASA and over 50 other clients.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments


Robert van de Walle

My heart goes out to these folks – they’ve solved so many engineering problems and suffered setbacks, and now they have to engineer deployable wings so they can fit the vehicle inside a fairing!

I know it’s a small weight penalty. But I also know it’s a time and engineering cost.

I like this vehicle. My question: why is fitting it in a fairing part of the CRS-2 requirements? That puts a large, tricky joint right at a particularly bad spot for re-entry heat and shock.

I am *pretty sure* it wasn’t a requirement imposed by CRS-2 contract, but that they thought it would be a better system (if my memory serves me correct, there had been concerns about bending loads)

The third to last paragraph says the fairing was to meet CRS-2 guidelines. The joint itself isn’t a problem. Navy aircraft do it all the time. Sealing it against re-entry gasses is another problem.

So, this actually Lockheed vehicle, as the article states they are the manufacturer, and NOT Sierra Nevada Corps? I am suddenly very unenthused. Disappointed really.

That is like Boeing building most of the Falcon 9, which they did supply a very smaller percentage of the craft. They did build some of the struts that may have failed and cause the explosion last June. But those are now built in-house by SpaceX.

Build yourself SNC.

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