Meet 'Tenacity:' Sierra Space unveils 1st Dream Chaser space plane (photos)

a white and black robotic space plane inside a hangar
Sierra Space's first Dream Chaser space plane, "Tenacity." (Image credit: Sierra Space)

Sierra Space marked a historic achievement with the completion of its first Dream Chaser space plane. 

The Colorado-based company announced on Thursday (Nov. 2) that construction has wrapped up on its first Dream Chaser vehicle, named "Tenacity." The space plane is set to be shipped to NASA's Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio for environmental testing in the coming weeks.

"Today we have arrived at a profound milestone in both our company's journey and our industry's future — one that has been years in the making and is shaped by audacious dreaming and tenacious doing," Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice said in a company statement on Thursday. "The Dream Chaser is not just a product; it's a testament to human spirit, determination and the relentless pursuit of what lies beyond."

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Sierra Space employees celebrate the completion of the first Dream Chaser space plane, "Tenacity." (Image credit: Sierra Space)

Sierra Space holds a NASA contract to launch robotic resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Dream Chaser. Tenacity will be the first of the company's space planes to fly to the orbiting lab, and it may do so soon: The vehicle could launch on a test flight to the orbiting lab as early as April 2024.

That mission will lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida aboard United Launch Alliance's new Vulcan Centaur rocket and will conclude with a landing at NASA's historic Shuttle Landing Facility, which is part of KSC.

The Dream Chaser's design is a blend of aesthetics and functionality, not to mention endurance, according to Sierra Space. The craft needs to repeatedly withstand reentry temperatures over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius) while remaining cool to the touch minutes after landing, which is no small engineering feat. 

The company also says that Dream Chaser's autonomous flight system is designed for a minimum of 15 space missions. The vehicle's sustainable propulsion and oxidizer-fuel system should help mitigate the environmental cost of its operations as well.

Tenacity's initial run will feature seven ISS cargo missions, if all goes according to plan. Like SpaceX's Dragon capsule, Dream Chaser can return experiments and other hardware to Earth from the orbiting lab. The other two freighters in operation today — Northop Grumman's Cygnus and Russia's Progress vehicle — cannot do that; they burn up upon reentry to Earth's atmosphere.

Robotic resupply missions could be just the beginning for Dream Chaser. In the future, Sierra Space also plans to launch people aboard the vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of NASA's space shuttle

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 John is a science and technology journalist and contributor. He received his B.A. in English and his M.A. in Computer Science from the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and has bylines with TechRadar, Live Science, and other publications. You can find him on Twitter at @thisdotjohn or seeking out dark sky country for spectacular views of the cosmos.