The first orbital Dream Chaser space plane recently got its wings, and a name.
Dream Chaser, which is built by Colorado-based company Sierra Nevada Corp., is the world's only non-capsule private orbital spacecraft. The winged vehicle will launch vertically atop a rocket but end its missions with runway landings, like NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiters used to do.
This spring, the company unboxed the wings for the first operational Dream Chaser vehicle, bringing it one step closer to delivering supplies and science to and from the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada also announced the spacecraft's name: Tenacity.
Related: Meet Dream Chaser, a Private Space Plane (Gallery)
This reporter had the opportunity to visit Sierra Nevada's Louisville, Colorado, production facility in March to get a sneak peek at the space plane. At that time, Tenacity's wings remained boxed up, but the space plane was still a sight to behold.
"It's an SUV for space — a Space Utility Vehicle," said Kimberly Schwandt, Sierra Nevada's communications director.
Tenacity is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2021, aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Once it's up and running, the space plane will carry cargo to and from the space station for NASA. Dream Chaser's runway landings will allow efficient retrieval and removal of scientific gear coming back to Earth, which will also enjoy a relatively smooth ride down to the ground, Sierra Nevada representatives said.
"The gentle landing protects science," Schwandt said.
Tenacity of flight
Dream Chaser was originally designed to carry people, and Sierra Nevada won several rounds of funding from NASA's Commercial Crew Program to develop the vehicle. However, the company lost out to Boeing and SpaceX when NASA awarded astronaut-ferrying contracts in 2014.
But in 2016, NASA selected the space plane for its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, awarding Sierra Nevada a contract to fly six uncrewed cargo missions to the space station by 2024.
Sierra Nevada needed to change out only about 20% of Dream Chaser's module to transition from a passenger vehicle to a cargo plane, said Anna Hare, a company communications representative.
Sierra Nevada therefore hasn't ruled out a crew-carrying future for the space plane at some point. "To go back to a crew ship wouldn't be so hard," Hare said.
Dream Chaser by itself can carry roughly 2,000 lbs. (900 kilograms) of supplies and cargo on board. A 16-foot-tall (4.9 meters) cargo module called Shooting Star can be attached to the space plane to provide an additional 10,000 lbs. (4,500 kg) of carrying capability.
After cargo is loaded onto the space station, astronauts can fill the Shooting Star with their trash. As Tenacity re-enters Earth's atmosphere, the Shooting Star will detach and disintegrate.
Because Dream Chaser carries relatively safe propellant, technicians can approach it quickly after landing. The back of the plane opens, providing rapid access to precious cargo. That can be key when the cargo is science experiments meant to operate in the low gravity of space.
"When the capsule sits on Earth, you kind of lose science," Schwandt said.
The space plane itself flies fully automated, without the requirement of a human pilot. My recent tour revealed a simulated cockpit that allowed technicians to practice handling the plane, as well as flying it.
According to Hare, Tenacity's initial flight most likely won't be full, giving the space plane a chance to stretch its wings. "But after that, we intend to fill the whole vehicle up with cargo," she said.
Eventually, Sierra Nevada would like to have more Dream Chasers join Tenacity in traveling to and from space. However, expanding the number of operational space planes depends on customer demand.
"Our dream is to have a whole fleet of space planes," Schwandt said.
Follow Nola on Facebook and on Twitter at @NolaTRedd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
If I could pilot Tenacity, I'd fly it around the Moon. <<<
Maybe an ocean recovery is aesthetically unpleasing to you, but wasting weight (and thus fuel) on wings, control surfaces, landing gear, the onboard systems to operate them, etc. uses up lifting capacity that could otherwise be used for the things you WANT to put in space. Furthermore, runway-recoverable space plane designs tie a spacecraft to home, and continue to take space flight down the shuttles' well-worn and uninspiring path, because they are only economically sound only for the quick turnarounds that are unnecessary for anything but Earth-orbital operation. Who cares how the damn thing comes home, if in the meantime it's been further than a couple of hundred miles?
Landing 12 men on the relatively close moon costed us $12,750,000,000 per person!
Also, "futzing around" in the LEO has achieved some important research and engineering that we'll need in deep space. For example, micro gravity repair and construction of multi component space based facilities. For example, addressing cosmic rays and mitigating their impact on the body and brain. Not to mention, the Apollo program was like two tin cans on each end of a piece of string. We accomplished a 21st century feat with 20th century technology. The fact is, the moon is very nearby. You can practically reach it by grappling hook. You know, a 12.75 billion dollar grappling hook.
If it was that important to you and you are so convinced you know how to do it better, then why didn't you do what Elon Musk has done? No, you just sat there bemoaning reality while watching Star Trek. Get real.
Mod Edit - GRAPES Violation - No Politics
Not only purloined but also a terrible name, just numbingly obvious and dull .... They should have stuck with their Dream Chaser direction and forged a more aspiring path ....
It cost a lot of money, but it wasn't a waste of money. The shuttle built the space station, and that would have been a much more difficult job without the shuttle. It also taught us a lot. It had a huge payload and could carry things no other craft could.
It is about time we got back to not dumping return craft in the ocean. SpaceX has a great idea with their reusable rockets, and the Dream Chaser would have been a perfect fit atop one of those rockets. There is no reason people should have to be fished out of the ocean.
As for keeping to low Earth orbit for such a long time, we had robotic probes that did a fantastic job of exploring for us. Although they can't do everything, they saved us a bundle of cash over what a manned program would have cost, especially with the tech that was available at the time. We weren't going to create a Moon base with the tech we had in the last century. As for the design only being good for Earth, so what? It makes a great shuttle, in the true sense of the word. I would hardly call the original shuttle's path "uninspiring". I bet if you asked a lot of designers what inspired them today, one of those things would be the shuttle program.