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Meet 'Tenacity': 1st Dream Chaser space plane gets a name

An artist's rendition of Tenacity in space.
An artist's rendition of Tenacity in space
(Image: © Sierra Nevada Corporation)

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.

SNC's Dream Chaser Spaceplane wings are unboxed in Colorado (Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

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.

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser mission control room sits empty but in 2021, when the space plane takes flight, it should be more crowded. (Image credit: Nola Redd/Space.com)

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.

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  • newtons_laws
    It'll be interesting to see how Dream Chaser performs, the ability to land back on a runway (like the old Space Shuttle or the USAF's current X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle) does offer some advantages. Also ESA have expressed interest in Dream Chaser and has agreements in place to partner with the Sierra Nevada Corporation: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35328544
    Reply
  • HorizonScanner
    >>> Branson should cut a deal with Dream Chaser's company and save some money.

    If I could pilot Tenacity, I'd fly it around the Moon. <<<
    Reply
  • Ryan F. Mercer
    Theft! I seem to recall this was one of the finalist names for the now named Perseverance. Give the grade schooler some credit!
    Reply
  • kristianna276
    Sometime ago I wrote about the need to bring back the Shuttle and I was shot down by others who claimed that the shuttle was just a waste of money. Someone told me that there was no one copying the shuttle and it was time I faced reality. Someone on this page asked if this could land on a runway. If you look at the actual video footage, that is exactly what it does in its test flight. It does not land in the ocean; for it lands on the ground. Reenacting the Apollo is not the right move. You can not move forward by moving backward. This is the future of Space Avionics. Plucking astronauts out of the ocean is so sixties. We are living in the twenty-first century; not in the twentieth century. "To the moon, Alice. To the moon."
    Reply
  • p3orion
    The shuttle WAS a waste of money, Kristianna, money that could have been better spent by pressing onward into the solar system. Worse, it was a waste of time, three decades' worth. You want to talk about "moving backward?" Landing 12 men on the moon beginning only eight years after the first human launch, but then following up by futzing around in low Earth orbit for the next half-century? THAT's moving backwards.

    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?
    Reply
  • Ryan F. Mercer
    p3orion said:
    You want to talk about "moving backward?" Landing 12 men on the moon beginning only eight years after the first human launch, but then following up by futzing around in low Earth orbit for the next half-century?
    "total cost of Project Apollo as $25.4 billion (about $153 billion in 2018 dollars). " -- wiki
    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.
    Reply
  • Gary
    Admin said:
    The first orbital Dream Chaser space plane recently got its wings, and a name: Tenacity.

    Meet 'Tenacity': 1st Dream Chaser space plane gets a name : Read more
    Seems like a cute little thing . But just how practical is it ?
    Reply
  • kristianna276
    p3orion said:
    The shuttle WAS a waste of money, Kristianna, money that could have been better spent by pressing onward into the solar system. Worse, it was a waste of time, three decades' worth. You want to talk about "moving backward?" Landing 12 men on the moon beginning only eight years after the first human launch, but then following up by futzing around in low Earth orbit for the next half-century? THAT's moving backwards.

    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?
    It does seem, to me, is that your rant provides no actual data to support your premise that the Space Shuttle was a waste? The facts sir. Dream Chaser is real and is going to launch and provide logistical service to supply tghe ISS with cargo. Fact!

    Mod Edit - GRAPES Violation - No Politics
    Reply
  • Toado
    Ryan F. Mercer said:
    Theft! I seem to recall this was one of the finalist names for the now named Perseverance. Give the grade schooler some credit!

    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 ....
    Reply
  • Mergatroid
    p3orion said:
    The shuttle WAS a waste of money, Kristianna, money that could have been better spent by pressing onward into the solar system. Worse, it was a waste of time, three decades' worth. You want to talk about "moving backward?" Landing 12 men on the moon beginning only eight years after the first human launch, but then following up by futzing around in low Earth orbit for the next half-century? THAT's moving backwards.

    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?

    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.
    Reply