Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corporation has been developing the Dream Chaser for the past sixteen years. It’s the descendant of a number of single-stage-to-launch (SSTL) projects. In short, it launches from a single stage and then returns to Earth and can land at any commercial airport. It’s engines burn alcohol and not hydrazine (so it won’t blow up). The SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle lands, and the reusable nature of the program means that nothing is tossed into the ocean to put the payload into low Earth orbit.

There are a number of military and civilian missions envisioned for the Dream Chaser. Maybe it will be the first genuine space plane of the US Space Force? (MAGA)

It can operate with a crew of from two to seven or it can be flown as a cargo space plane, delivering supplies and then returning to Earth. (The cargo version is called the “shooting star”)

The first ISS flight of the Dream Chaser Demo-1 is planned for 2021. Completion of NASA’s Integrated Review Milestone 5 (IR5) confirms that development is still on schedule.


Manned Mission to Mars

I’m one of the least enthusiastic people around when it comes to serious talk about a manned mission to Mars. I think that the technology to do that is many decades out, with a lot of investment in space between now and then. Space, outside Earth’s protective radiation belts is extremely dangerous.

The best plan I’ve heard and it was an old one by Werner Von Braun was that we send several redundant spacecraft to Mars at the same time. It would be ruinously expensive but it would offer the best chance of getting there with the flight crew in one piece. If one ship developed a problem, the crew could be transferred in-flight.

Robotics are to the point where we should be able to put a robotic base on Mars long before we send people. Test the base, test the concept, send crawlers and fliers around mars to fully explore the environment, extract water from sub-surface layers and process it, and then, one day, the landlords can arrive.

Maybe a manned presence could be established in lava tubes? Perhaps some other solution will present itself, or maybe Mars just won’t be interesting enough to send human beings? Or maybe we’ll be too busy burning society down to even approach the matter of putting people on Mars as a permanent colony.

I, for one, woudn’t like to be on Mars and learn that the space program has been canceled because of a Chinese Plague or because of minority dissatisfaction, or because a Democrat administration took office and decided to buy votes with the money earmarked for resupply on Mars. We definitely need to get our ducks in a row here first. Maybe a good first step would be to have college professors stop preaching “burn it down”. Or am I being overly dramatic?



  1. It looks to me like the Dream Chaser is much more maneuverable than the dragon capsule and most if not all other private space capsule endeavors. To me the capsules replicate the early space program and mostly just get people up and down; this can actually do useful tasks in orbit. While the idea has been around a while, the Space Shuttle was just getting into its full capabilities when Challenger went down and the program was hamstrung.

    I am hopeful that private space programs can fulfill the promise of the Space Shuttle program, but I am skeptical that they can with current technology and more importantly with the current regulatory environment.

    • The Dragon is designed for transit to the moon. It’s an interim effort when it comes to going to ISS. Hopefully next year we will have the Dream Chaser option. If not next year, 2022.

      We don’t know what pestilence, riots, plague, etc. await us between now and the election that would delay the Dream Chaser.

    • Capsules give you the largest useable volume in the smallest space.

      Space-planes, like the old Shuttle, Dreamchaser and the X-37B, have severe limitations on cargo and personnel storage, on lifting g-forces, on entry g-forces and other critical issues that capsules just don’t have.

      And then there’s things like re-entry. Capsules are, once they start re-entry, pretty much self-orienting and down-right predictable and safe in landing using parachutes and inflatable bumpers (for land landings) and inflatable collars (for water landings.)

      Winged spacecraft that land like planes look cool. The concept sound neat and elegant. But in reality, reusable capsules are the way to go. Cheaper pound-for-pound. Stronger pound-for-pound. More usable volume pound-for-pound. Simple to build, simple to operate.

      • Yep, if you’re looking for a Space Truck to run on established routes (ISS, Moon), then a capsule makes the most economic sense.

        “Things With Wings” are super cool, and give you some leeway as to where to land, but the Reentry Interface is a bitch…..

        • With the big push on reusable to low Earth orbit, this would make sense. I agree that there are benefits to capsules (with command service modules attached) for longer and more involved activities including maneuvering outside of a planned and established orbit to destroy or to board satellites.

    • I think that it’s the only way to do it. If we launch habitability payloads at possibly two per year for a decade, and commit to launching several ships together to Mars, each completely self contained and capable of taking on one or more other crews, we might pull it off.

      But what is on Mars that’s worth the effort? Other than having somebody’s footprints on Mars (there is wind on Mars so they won’t last long).

    • Actually, even Elon wants that. First send robot landers to Mars. Set up automatic fuel plants. Build basic infrastructure before the first manned mission lands.

      Been that way since Musk was talking about using Dragon or Dragon Mars for any manned Mars mission.

      With the emphasis on Starship, now the plan is land an un-manned Starship for proof of concept, unload supplies, launch, begin return, meanwhile launch (if things go well) manned and cargo Starships.

        • Is it possible that the CHAZ people could achieve orbit. Maybe if we helped them with a tactical nuke, some of their component compounds could reach the stratosphere?

        • Testing purposes, to verify the stockpile is actually being maintained properly and that the computer models are truly accurate. Though cluster bombs with delayed action bomblets disguised as packages of tofu and organic vegetables would be a more precisely targeted approach that would preserve the infrastructure. Although if this goes on another few weeks, the infrastructure may be so infested and run-down that sterilization by nuke might be the safest course.

          • We need to resist the urge to set up delousing stations outside so that people who would escape can be de-bugged on their way out. They should be kept in. Maybe pay-per-view of the zoo? Use it to pay for the experiment once its over.

  2. @Jonathan, the only thing holding private space back is the US.gov’s regulatory environment, and that seems to be lessening as even NASA is beginning to realize that it can’t compete, despite decades of throwing up obstacles. The Space Shuttle was never anything more than an X-program. It was massively expensive and only notionally reusable. There is absolutely nothing that the Shuttle could do or was ever planned to do other than to get people and cargo up, and then to get people back down, at a cool billion or two per mission. SpaceX can do both, although with two launches, but each launch is 10% or less of a shuttle mission. I know where my money would be going. Nothing else even comes close to competing. Wings add nothing to usability, but add a lot of structural weight and drag during launch, which is pretty much the only measure that counts.

    • The Shuttle had and the Dream Chaser will also have a military mission. The Dream Chaser is much smaller than the shuttle, as you point out, and my sense is that the heavy lifting won’t be done there, but by other unmanned systems.

      We learned from the Shuttle and with luck, this will provide the US a more redundant system for getting from here to there and back.

      • True. I do wish them success, but I think wings on spacecraft create more problems than they solve. Kind of like swing-wing aircraft. They had real appeal for a while, but there’s a reason all the designs that went into production are over 4 or 5 decades old.

        • I think that one day a technological leap may lead to a true single stage space plane that is completely reusable, but we’re a very long way from that.

  3. The Dreamchaser is a 3 stage system. Main booster to launch and get system up above all the thick air (stage 1), upper booster to push into orbit (stage 2) and the plane.

    If they use United Launch Alliance systems, the only reusable portion is the Dreamchaser.

    If Sierra Nevada buys space on a Falcon 9, the only part not reusable are the 2nd stage and any adapter ring between the 2nd stage and the plane.

    Sierra Nevada has been promising a space launch of un-crewed Dream for… 10 years now. I’ll believe it when I actually see it fly. My feelings? Sierra Nevada will go bankrupt before ever launching.

    If they do launch, I don’t expect to see it till 2023, and by then SpaceX will have their new launch system either fully functional or almost ready to launch. At less cost than Dreamchaser per pound or kilogram per launch.

    If Sierra Nevada had gotten off the pad even 3 years ago with a successful test launch, I’d be much more eager to see them fly. Now? Almost as much a waste of time as the SLS/Orion system (that, by 2022, will be obsolete as SpaceX will be launching Starship with more capacity and renusable and cheaper and better built.

  4. Lots of good commentary here. The Space Shuttle was reusable in name only. It never came close to the way it was sold. It never approached the launch cadence it was sold under. Each Shuttle was supposed to fly fifty missions per year…it never got remotely close to that. In the 30 years Shuttles flew, the average (including a couple of years with no flights) was 4-1/2 flights/year.

    It was oversold and under-performed. Out of 134 missions, two ended in loss of vehicle and everyone aboard. 1.5% of flights or 1 in 67 chance when you go up you never see your family again. That’s an atrocious safety record for a vehicle. There were five shuttles built, so 40% of them were lost.

    It looked cool and it landed on a runway. There was no power during landings – it just glided in. One shuttle pilot said it had all the aerodynamics of a brick.

    While in orbit, can Dream Chaser change its orbit more than raising and lowering a little? Changing orbital inclination takes lots of energy. Which means lots of fuel or long duration missions which means carrying of crew supplies (oxygen, water, food…).

    • I agree with SiG 100%. The Shuttle had a very poor “Bucks-To-Buck-Rogers” ratio. Horrendously expensive to fly, barely “reusable” (how many tiles were replaced each flight?), and as said, an “X-Plane Program”.
      It never occurred to be that we lost 40% of the fleet!

      Orbital maneuvering has nothing to do with what the spacecraft *looks* like. Wings are cool, but they do nothing outside the atmosphere. As Beans pointed out, changing the Orbital Inclination (the “Plane of the Orbit”) take huge amounts of energy. A little pipsqueak like the Dream Chaser can’t possibly carry enough fuel to make useful changes in orbital inclination.

      IIRC, it came from one of the early ISS “Lifeboat” designs, and it’s mostly suited for that.

    • The X-37 has a maneuvering (power) module attached to the back of the “B” module. While I have no way of knowing whether the Dream Chaser would incorporate that option, it would make sense if it did – heavier to lift off the pad in exchange for the capacity to change orbit.

      The comment that Sierra Nevada will go broke before they can launch may be telling. I haven’t checked the relative stock value.

      • To denigrate the Shuttle even more, once returned, each went into basically a complete rebuild, including lots of tile replacement due to dings from ice hits during launch.

        In perspective, at the end of Apollo, the next flight of capsules would have been 75-85% reuseable, with replacement of the heat-shield, environmental systems, recovery systems and door and window seals. Turn around time was expected, after recovery, to be about a 2 month process, could be sped up much quicker if surpluses of all components were created.

        As to Dreamchaser, it has limited maneuver capabilities. Up orbit, down orbit, pretty much that’s it. It is, in all respects, a capsule with wings. Less maneuverable in space than an Apollo with a service module. Maybe as maneuverable as a Gemini or Mercury.

        Not a very ‘evolutionary’ design at all. NASA had a ‘mini-shuttle’ designed and aerodynamically tested as an ISS escape vehicle and Shuttle rescue vehicle (supposed to be pad ready at time of launch of the Shuttle, but then again, it was originally planned that there would be a standby Shuttle ready at each Shuttle launch) and Sierra Nevada basically took over the design for Dreamchaser. Which really makes SN’s lack of achievement even that more unimpressive.

        What next? Skylon? Yeah, I have a bridge to sell you. FYI: Skylon is a SSTO horizontal-launch space plane – meaning launches and lands like a conventional plane and flies to high altitude using air-breathing engines and then miraculously transitioning to ‘space’ engines (the jet engines somehow transform to circular aerospike (external combustion) engines for ‘space.’ And like Sierra Nevada, the British company that has been working on Skylon has been doing it for, like, forever. But unlike Sierra Nevada, the company making Skylon has yet to produce anything but lots of studies and a staggering amount of tax writeoffs.

        If any company ‘deserves’ to be saved, it would be Bigelow Aerospace and their inflatable habitats, for either space or lunar or ground use. Part of the inflatable shell is a huge water jacket which serves as better protection against radiation and heat, but, of course, Bigelow has pretty much gone Tango Uniform. Dangit.

        • I have next to nothing about Bigelow Aerospace for the last year or two. Sorry if they’ve gone the way of the dodo and the Iron Horse.

          The reason that I posted about this particular platform is that it would seem to have the potential to launch in the near future. Unlike so many others.

          • I worked for a place in Torrance that built “Water Tunnels”, and did advance testing of various type of models in them, including many variations of an SSTO vehicle similar to the National Aerospace Plane, aka “The Orient Express”.

            SSTO could be done barely back then, but you had basically zero usable payload. At the time, you wound up with something insane like 99% fuel, and 1% for structure, very difficult to do with available materials.

            We’re at the bottom of a gravity well that makes it very difficult, but tantalizingly close, to do SSTO.

  5. Dream Chaser doesn’t look bad, per se, but I still prefer Project Black Horse, a.k.a. ‘stage and a half to orbit’. Black Horse is a horizontal takeoff/horizontal landing design, which gives a much higher payload per pound of vehicle because you are making use of the wings for both takeoff and landing. In short, a modified air refueling tanker lifts off (The USAF was enthusiastic enough for Black Horse early on that they planned on donating a KC-135). The modified tanker has two fuel tanks, one with stock JP-5 and the second with H2O2 (Hydrogen Peroxide). No cryogenic systems are needed for either fuel. The KC flies to intercept altitude, and the Black Horse vehicle takes off as a conventional aircraft, from any airport, using a pair of conventional turbofan engines. At this stage it carries only JP-5. If flies to the intercept altitude and hooks up to the KC, which pumps the Black Horse full of both fuels. The KC heads back to the barn, and the Black Horse engages it’s rocket engines and heads to orbit. If it encounters any problems it can reduce thrust, dump the H2O2, and head for any available airport using the conventional turbofan engines. Crew escape, if need be, is accomplished using standard ejection seats. Once in orbit it carries out it’s mission and returns to earth, landing, again, at any standard airport. More info here: http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/im/magnus/bh/analog.html. I’m not sure why a design that was simultaneously this simple and this brilliant failed; I suspect NASA politicking and a not-invented-here mindset.

    • NASA was and is a political organization, which meant that the administration ALWAYS plays politics, IMHO.

      I wasn’t familiar how Black Horse worked, and I appreciate your comments here.

  6. Personally, I’m waiting for SpaceX’s Starship. They’re on the steep part of the learning curve right now, but SpaceX is moving faster than I would’ve dreamed possible a decade ago. It’s like the space program I was promised as a kid watching Gemini and Apollo.

  7. DRJIM, it may be that we will have to wait for a space elevator to accomplish the equivalent of SSTO.

    • SSTO is doable, if… one has droptanks to drop off the propellant needed to get at least 10 miles high, maybe higher. Could make them recoverable, with parachutes and such.

      But if you’re going that far, why not just make them recoverable booster rockets?

      And thus, yeah, no real SSTO with current fuels, engines and craft materials.

      Like, well, SpaceShip 1 and SpaceShip 2. Sure, they’re designed to fly to space and back on internal fuel. After, like the X-15, getting lifted high above all the thick air. And now it looks like Virgin Galactic, who ‘purchased’ SpaceShip 2, will be the next ‘space launch’ company to go bust.

      SpaceX did it right. First they looked at the financials and expenses. Where the profit is and isn’t. Then designed a series of vehicles to actually make money. Yes, Falcon 1 was a proof-of-concept program (though I still wish commercial flights would launch out of Kwajalein Atoll. The Marshallese really need the international money, and space launches would be less corrupt than selling ‘flag rights’ to shipping companies.) Then, once they got Falcon 9 up and running, they continued to refine it until the latest flight is just about 99.9% perfect. And they are willing to continue to perfect it. It’s not like other rockets where the company got it ‘right’ and then stopped developing it.

      As to a space elevator, really neat concept. No way in heck will get built within the next 50 years. Not with any currently economically available materials.

      • I don’t see a space elevator before 2100, but that’s what it will take to make Earth-to-Orbit heavy lift affordable. All of the present efforts of SpaceX seem to be very smart – looking at it as an outsider, but cost per kilo is still extreme.

        • The main benefit of the cost reduction to orbit and beyond that SpaceX is bringing is that it is now ‘economical’ to lift the machines and processors to make lunar or mars terrain as a resource to make and build things on the moon or Mars. Whether mining for specific minerals and compounds (like water) or just using the soil or regolith as a bulding supply.

          At the previous cost to orbit or beyond from Saturn to the Shuttle to ULA or the Russkies or ChiComs or India or Europe, cost to lift was/is so expensive it only justified the cost of lifting satellites and research platforms, with no real ‘commercial’ processing in space.

          We have finally almost reached the point where von Braun wanted us in the late 70’s. Finally be close enough to seriously mine space for manufacturing in space.

          SpaceX’s Starship system will even make it potentially economical to actually mine asteriods. Potentially.

          SpaceX, by dropping the cost to orbit per lb or kg, has now set the stage for heavy, robust machines to be launched, rather than pared-down minimalistic machines. As seen in the heavy architecture of Starship itself.

          Now all we need to do is start lifting a bunch of steerable and aim-able mirrors for to use the power of the Sun as a cutting and heating beam (as per John Ringo’s “Live Free or Die.”)

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