Dream Chaser Shuttle Replacement Out In The Cold: NASA

There was great excitement on September 16 when NASA announced that it selected Boeing and SpaceX to construct new spacecraft as replacements for the space shuttle fleet that was retired in 2011. Boeing and SpaceX will each build vehicles of different designs that will shuttle cargo and personnel from the Earth to space.

Boeing and SpaceX, however, edged out another company’s design for a shuttle replacement. The loser in the competition for the multi-billion dollar contract was Sierra Nevada Corporation’s design for a vehicle it calls the Dream Chaser.

Unlike the successful designs, the Dream Chaser most resembled the retired shuttles’ winged, lifting body design. Early space vehicles looked like conical bullets rather than sleek spacecraft used by heroes and bad guys alike in countless science fiction novels and movies. Usually cylindrical or cigar shaped, the science fiction visions were festooned with cockpit domes, laser weapons and even wings that would have been useless in space but still looked cool.

When the original shuttle was launched in 1981, both the general public and science fiction fans were excited. NASA’s shuttles were the first vehicles to resemble the popular idea of what a spacecraft might look like. These vehicles were designed with the cockpit and windscreens in the front, wings that provided lift while re-entering the atmosphere, and landing gear that allowed them to return to the ground like a conventional aircraft. They operated through their life spans and were retired by NASA in 2011.

Since that time, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). However, the need for NASA to obtain a shuttle replacement remained and became even more pressing as tensions between the U.S. and Russia escalated over Ukraine.

Anticipating the need for replacements for the shuttle fleet that would soon go out of service in 2011, five American companies were given $50 million in 2010 by NASA to evaluate manned spaceflight technology options in the private sector. After multiple phases of development, NASA accepted proposals for shuttle replacements. When the process was complete and contracts were awarded in September, the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser was left out in the cold.

Dream Chaser is designed as a reusable lifting-body space plane unlike the bullet-like capsule designs of the Boeing and SpaceX vehicles. Crew size for the vehicle is from two to seven people and is capable of flight in low Earth orbit to and from the ISS.

Unlike the former space shulltes, the fuel system is designed to be safe, making use of hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) and nitrous oxide. It would be launched atop a Saturn V rocket or other capable launch platform, and is equipped with a launch escape system that would disconnect the spacecraft from the booster and propel it away to a safe distance for an alternate landing.

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The Sierra Nevada design is capable of autonomous flight, and would return to Earth in a more gentle landing approach that would generally result in less than 1.5 Gs. The Dream Chaser would be able to land on any airfield that was capable of handling commercial air traffic.

Exactly why the Dream Chaser design was not chosen by NASA is unclear. The company said that it could provide the necessary services to NASA for nearly $1 billion less than the awarded contracts. The Inquisitr reported that the company officially protested the contract awards to Boeing and Space X, and requested that the proposal be reevaluated.

In early January, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) rejected Sierra Nevada’s protest. On January 6, Space Flight Now reported that Ralph White, the GAO’s managing associate general counsel for procurement law stated, “GAO disagreed with Sierra Nevada’s arguments about NASA’s evaluation, and found no undue emphasis on NASA’s consideration of each offeror’s proposed schedule, and likelihood to achieve crew transportation system certification not later than 2017.” The GAO also found no fault in the consideration of other factors cited by Sierra Nevada in the selection process.

“Based on our review of the issues, we concluded that these arguments were not supported by the evaluation record or by the terms of the solicitation,” the GAO said.

Whether Sierra Nevada will take any further action at this time is unclear. However, it appears that NASA and the GAO will stand by their decisions, leaving the Sierra Nevada Corporation to look for other potential customers in Europe or consider the space tourism industry. For the time being, function and utility, as interpreted by NASA, will trump appearance, and Sierra Nevada’s sleek Dream Chaser design for a shuttle replacement must step aside for the capsule-based vehicles selected by NASA.