The USAF has fallen in love with Boeing’s X-37B mini space plane, but that does not mean they have a lock on its mission forever. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser is larger and potentially more versatile than the X-37B, and if it finally makes it into operation, it could drastically bring down its price and adaptability for Air Force missions.

The strange thing is that the Dream Chaser has been in development for over 50 years in one form or another. Now, with potential lucrative Pentagon contracts up for grabs, can the Sierra Nevada Corporation make this long chased dream a reality and get its Dream Chaser space plane finally into orbit without heavy external funding?

Chasing The Dream

The idea of a lifting-body spaceplane is relatively straightforward. Launch a spaceship into space that can then return to earth smoothly via landing on a runway like a normal aircraft does. This would theoretically increase safety, cut costs and enhance mission flexibility. The Shuttle was a very large, and some would say bloated version of the this concept. The Dream Chaser on the other hand is exactly the opposite.

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The Dream Chaser is really a perfect name for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s little lifting-body spaceplane design, as it has been the defunct dream of many engineers and companies from around the globe since the dawn of spaceflight.

The project’s roots can be found in the X-20 Dyna-Soar concept of the late 1950s and the Northrop M2-F2 and HL-10, and the Martin X-24A lifting body test aircraft of the mid 1960s.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Soviets were working on their own Dyna-Soar like spaceplane, known as the MiG-105, which was the centerpiece of a larger system known as “Spiral.” The MiG-105, nicknamed “Shoe” because of its appearance, looked more like the Dream Chaser as we know it today as any of its western predecessors. The Soviets went on to leverage these concepts for their BOR-4 unmanned and sub-scale space plane of the 1980s, of which some of the test aircraft did make it into orbit.

Just a few years after the Russians flew their last BOR-4 test aircraft sortie, NASA’s HL-20 Personnel Launch System was unveiled. It looked almost identical to the Dream Chaser as we know it today, and a lot like its various predecessors.

The HL-20 was envisioned to be a small space taxi of sorts, moving cargo and personnel into and out of low earth orbit safely in an affordable manner. It was a low-end compliment to the Space Shuttle that could save on missions where the Shuttle’s huge payload was not needed. It could also act as a lifeboat for space station inhabitants.

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Although promising, the Shuttle was flying regularly and much more exotic single stage to orbit concepts were taking priority at the time, such as the X-33/VentureStar and the DC-X. Neither of these exotic vehicles worked out in the long run, and in retrospect the HL-20 really would have been a perfect, safer and less complex match for the Shuttle and a successor to it after its retirement.

Yet another concept very similar to the HL-20, and eventually the the Dream Chaser, popped up around the turn of the millennium. This being NASA’s X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. Basically this was a stripped-down and highly automated version HL-20 that could be used specifically as a lifeboat for the International Space Station. Yet as the program proceeded, its potential grew.

Regardless of its promise and need, around 2002, after multiple atmospheric flight tests, the X-38 was cut from NASA’s portfolio do to other budgetary cuts and other priorities. Namely this included the Bush Administration’s ambitious yet underfunded return to space exploration program known eventually as Constellation.

The Dream Chaser Is Born

Just a few years after the X-38’s cancellation, the Dream Chaser design came to be, or really was remodeled yet again, with aims to fulfill the commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) initiative and later the commercial crew development program set forward by NASA. Now, nearly a decade later, as NASA has gone “all-in” with commercial spaceflight to low-earth orbit, Dream Chaser was passed over for major NASA funding, with the majority of the dollars going to SpaceX. Even with this re-focusing of assets, commercial spaceflight is still struggling to get off the ground.

Regardless of its funding setbacks, Sierra Nevada Corporation is pushing ahead with Dream Chaser, upgrading many of its components and redesigning its wings, with an eye on restarting drop tests flights next year and with hopes for a launch in late 2018 or early 2019.

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Sierra Nevada Corporation is looking at marketing the Dream Chaser for a number of applications including a cargo variant with an expanded rear cargo fairing for enhanced uplift capabilities. The Dream Chaser cannot recover back on earth with this fairing installed. Instead it can be used to de-orbit trash and other waste.

In this configuration, the Dream Chaser can lift 11,023 pounds under pressurized conditions, 1,100 pounds of cargo in its unpressurized fairing. It can bring back to earth 3,858lbs of cargo within the pressurized Dream Chaser after jettisoning its cargo fairing in space. The manned version can carry up to seven passengers.

Practical To Tactical?

Seeing the success of Boeing’s shadowy X-37B space plane, Sierra Nevada Corporation sees that the Dream Chaser may have an opportunity to find success in the military world. With the Dream Chaser’s size being much larger than that of the X-37B, it could potentially do things the USAF’s current space plane cannot. Additionally, with the spaceship’s redesigned folding wing system, it can now fit into an Atlas V or Delta IV’s payload fairing and the company tells Flightglobal.com that it can stay in orbit for over a year if designed to do so and it can do many of the same missions an X-37B could.

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Meanwhile, Boeing has launched the X-37B four times into orbit, with the little space plane’s endurance being pushed farther and farther each time. The last flight saw the ship stay aloft for almost two years (674 days to be exact) and Boeing may be looking at building a larger version and possibly one that is capable of carrying passengers in the future.

Boeing’s X-37B (Credit- Boeing):

Maybe the defense sector will be the marketplace where a mature Dream Chaser-like concept can finally get some stable traction once and for all. It is clear that rapid and persistent space access is becoming a top issue for the Pentagon and having a little competition is never a bad thing to boost capabilities and lower costs. This is especially true as the military continues to look into more exotic spaceplane capabilities, a high-risk and shadowy area of development that will require a lower-end, more reliable and cost effective reusable spacecraft for decades to come to take on less urgent missions. This can be had with the X-37B, and possibly to a greater degree with a militarized Dream Chaser.

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If anything else, the small lifting-body spaceplane has been in development for close to 70 years, with two super powers perfecting the idea over decades. It has always made sense, yet somehow it has been kept from becoming an operational concept, often times being passed over for more ambitious designs. In retrospect, seeing how we rely on the Russians for flights to the ISS even as we rattle sabers with them, the Dream Chaser and its predecessors would have been a perfect craft to cost effectively retain American manned access to low earth orbit and to follow the Shuttle’s spaceplane legacy.

If the Dream Chaser can prove itself as a manned alternative to capsules, and at the same time market itself successfully to the military, it could prove so cost effective that Sierra Nevada Corporation, and so many other scientific institutions and companies that came before it, both foreign and domestic, may finally have their small lifting body spaceplane dream come true.

Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com

Image Credits: Dream Chaser renders and images via Sierra Nevada Corporation. X-37B via Boeing. All other photos via NASA.