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Sierra Space CEO Signals Dream Chaser Delays

Tenacity sits atop Shooting Star at the Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio. Catwalks, railings, and wiring surround the black and white spacecraft in the massive room. Dream Chaser has been undergoing testing at the facility since December of 2023.
Credit: Sierra Space

It seems that Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity, may be waiting a bit longer to fly. Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice recently appeared on CNBC’s Manifest Space podcast, hosted by Morgan Brennan, to discuss recent developments and aspirations at the company. The episode was released on the 5th of April, 2024. During the podcast, Vice talked about Sierra Space’s newly announced Eclipse line of satellite buses, Sierra Space’s rising status in the commercial space industry, possibilities opened by inflatable habitat technology, and even the possibility of an IPO. 

As Dream Chaser entered the discussion, Brennan asked if Dream Chaser had a set launch date, Vice responded “closer to the end of the year, so last quarter of the year. If we beat that, that’d be great… but right now we’ll track to that.” Vice went on to further explain the complexities of preparing Tenacity for its mission to the International Space Station, including the complexity of station scheduling, and the process of acquiring a reentry licence from the FAA. “We’re working through all of that, but the vehicle itself is looking really good.”

The International Space Station as imaged from SpaceX Crew Dragon, Endeavor, during the Crew-3 mission. Seen docked to the ISS in this image is a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, and Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles, members of the station fleet Dream Chaser looks to join.
Credit NASA Johnson

At the outset of 2024, Dream Chaser was tentatively scheduled to fly sometime in April, however this later slipped into the summer timeframe. This latest delay is significant, and comes as Tenacity, alongside its service module Shooting Star, is undergoing pre-launch testing at NASA’s Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio. In this critical final phase of testing, the combined spacecraft are put through their paces in simulators that emulate the various stresses of launch. Dream Chaser has already completed vibrational testing, and has since moved on to thermal vacuum testing. As explained by Vice, “it’s a test that actually puts you in the environment of space, both in the vacuum of space and the thermal environment of space.” Vice indicated that testing was finishing up and that “three weeks from now (Dream Chaser) will be at Kennedy Space Center” for its final tests ahead of integration with its launch vehicle. Scheduling Dream Chaser’s mission to the ISS is a complex task, the experimental flight must find space within the steady stream of crew and cargo spacecraft arriving at and departing from the ISS from two different nations. Delays to the launch of Crew-8 for instance caused a chain resulting in a delay to the Crewed Flight Test of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which consequently pushed Dream Chaser back as well.

The delay to the long-awaited cargo spacecraft raises questions for the immediate future of the vehicle set to launch it, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket, which continues to make steady progress in spite of payload delays. While the system has been responsible for Dream Chaser delays in the past, Vulcan-Centaur aced its first launch back in January of 2024, and remains on-track for a second launch some time this summer. Alongside carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, the flight was the first of two necessary to prove Vulcan-Centaur’s capabilities ahead of flying payloads for the Department of Defense. Dream Chaser is currently still scheduled for Vulcan-Centaur’s second flight, but continuing delays raise questions if ULA should seek out a new flight two payload in order to maintain schedule and ultimately certify the vehicle for one of its most crucial roles, National Security Space Launch. Another Vulcan customer set to fly in 2024 is Amazon’s Kuiper internet satellites, though it is unclear if the first production satellites will be ready to fly any sooner than Dream Chaser.

A Blue Origin-provided BE-4 engine sits ahead of its installation on the second Vulcan core stage, the tankage of which can be seen in the background.
Credit: Tory Bruno/ULA

Dream Chaser’s first flight will prove out an entirely new system for delivering cargo to the ISS, and further redundancy in-case of issues on the Cargo Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft, or the Falcon 9 rocket which launches them. Dream Chaser will also provide further uncrewed downmass capabilities to the station, the ability to bring cargo back to Earth safely, which currently is only provided by Cargo Dragon. Dreamchaser, being a spaceplane, offers a less stressful ride for cargo returning to Earth, and can land at any runway capable of accommodating a Boeing 737 airliner. After its first flight, Dream Chaser has six more contracted resupply flights to the ISS. In the future, Dream Chaser is aiming to take on a cargo and even crew transport role in support of the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program, seeking to provide commercial replacements for the ISS ahead of its retirement. 

For now however, we will wait to see if Dream Chaser completes its testing campaign on-time and arrives in Florida next month as planned.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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