One of NASA's commercial cargo spacecraft will delay its first launch by nearly half a year, a media report states.
The shuttle-shaped Dream Chaser's ride to space will be a new booster from United Launch Alliance called Vulcan, and it is designed to touch down on a conventional runway at the end of each mission. Sierra Space confirmed in the report it plans to launch in the fourth quarter of this year, but provided no details on the delay besides that.
"We will remain flexible as long as we can for Sierra Space to be ready to fly," a ULA spokesperson told Ars Technica on March 24, adding that the certification mission on which the spacecraft is supposed to fly could go instead using a "mass simulator."
Vulcan, however, is also facing development issues of its own ahead of flying the two certification missions. Before Dream Chaser, it is supposed to fly Astrobotic's lunar lander on a "Cert. 1" mission in May. But an anomaly during testing on Vulcan's upper stage has just happened, too.
Tony Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, said on Twitter yesterday (March 30) that the Centaur V upper stage suffered an anomaly during qualification testing the day before, and responded to several questions in a Twitter thread.
No one was hurt in the testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Bruno said, and described the work as "extreme structural load testing of various worst possible conditions." He added the company is not prepared yet to speculate on what happened on the first day of an investigation. When asked about whether it would affect launch dates, he only said that all other preparation activities are still proceeding.
"This is is why we thoroughly & rigorously exercise every possible condition on the ground before flight. Investigation is underway. Vulcan will fly when complete," he emphasized.
ULA wants to fly the two certification missions ahead of operational missions, particularly for the U.S. military, which demands a high standard of flight reliability for its security payloads.
In the meantime, the situation will leave NASA with a single operational rocket type that supplies cargo vehicles: The SpaceX Falcon 9. That rocket sends SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and soon, Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft to orbit as well. (Russian Progress spacecraft also supply the ISS, but mostly for Russian crew needs or to deliver fuel; NASA uses its commercial cargo for the U.S. segment's experiments, equipment and supplies.)
Cygnus used to fly on the Antares 230 rocket, but that arrangement is no longer possible. Antares used Russian engines, and those engines are no longer available after Russia sparked an internationally condemned war in Ukraine in February 2022 that broke apart most space relationships with the country, aside from the ISS.
Around 2025 or so, Cygnus will switch to Antares 330 using Firefly Aerospace-made engines instead of Russian ones, pending the rocket being ready for flight.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace