To get a sense of what it would be like to fly the Dream Chaser space plane hop into the front seat of a car - ideally a large SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) or minivan - preferably with six friends. Instead of a steering wheel in front of you, picture a joystick. Instead of a dashboard, a row of flatscreen displays. Now shut and lock the doors, fasten your seatbelts and we’re ready to go. Next stop, the International Space Station (ISS).
Dream Chaser is being built by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) in the US mid-western state of Colorado. It is one of three concepts backed by Nasa to replace the retired Space Shuttle and is designed to carry crew and cargo to and from orbit. The other two concepts – SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s, uninspiringly named CST-100 – are both capsules, not much different in appearance to the Apollo spacecraft that took men to the Moon.
But even Dream Chaser’s designers liken the space plane to a large family car, and sitting at the controls it’s easy to see why. The mock-up cabin is certainly no wider and the windows surrounding the two pilots offer similar visibility. Behind the front seats, there’s room for five more astronauts with a small area at the back for luggage. On the outside, it resembles a shoe with two wings poking out diagonally at the back.
The space plane’s squat, compact shape was inspired by a fuzzy 1970s spy photograph of an experimental Soviet aircraft. Nasa engineers spent more than a decade reverse engineering and developing the concept. They even built a full-sized mock-up before the project was quietly shelved. SNC has now been working on Dream Chaser for the last nine years and, with a recent extra $212 million from NASA, is getting close to finally turning the dream into reality.
“It started as a dream,” admits Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems. “It was a very small group of people that looked to the future and said we think that when the Shuttle retires, that there’s a place for a modern version of that shuttle.”
“The reality is quite real now. We have built our vehicle, we have actually conducted our first test flight, the vehicle will do its first autonomous [atmospheric] flight later this year…and we’re now in the final three companies who are going to be looked towards to produce a vehicle that can take people and cargo back and forth to the space station.”
Comparisons with a mid-sized family hatchback even extend to the factory, on the outskirts of Denver, where the first space plane is taking shape. It resembles a garage workshop, where you expect to see mechanics tinkering with cars; instead they’re preparing the first Dream Chaser for flight.
The plane sits in a bay at the end of the room beneath a vast Stars and Stripes flag. Constructed primarily of carbon fibre, the first impression of Dream Chaser is that it’s, well…small. With no massive engines or cargo bay, and only a couple of metres off the ground, it is quite unlike any other space plane design. And whereas the Space Shuttle was, notoriously, the most complicated machine ever built, Dream Chaser is much simpler.
“We look at it what jobs are needed,” says Sirangelo. “We’re not taking big pieces to and from the Space Station any more, we’re taking people and critical cargo back and forth and it’s designed in size for that purpose.”