A commercial spaceplane capable of orbital flight is ready for NASA testing

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NASA will soon begin testing what is being called the world’s first commercial spaceplane capable of orbital flight, which will eventually be used to resupply the International Space Station. The agency will take delivery of Sierra Space’s first Dream Chaser, which will provide an alternative to SpaceX spacecraft for travel to the ISS.

In the coming weeks, the spaceplane (which is currently at Sierra Space’s facility in Colorado) will make its way to a NASA test site in Ohio. The agency will test the vehicle, called Tenacity, for one to three months. According to Ars Technica, NASA will conduct vibration, acoustic and temperature tests to ensure Tenacity can survive the rigors of a rocket launch. NASA engineers, along with government and contractor teams, are conducting tests to ensure it is safe for Tenacity to approach the ISS.

If all goes well, Tenacity will make its first trip to space in April on the second flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. The rocket has yet to make its own first test flight, which is expected to take place in December. But given how spaceflight is going, delays on both fronts are always possible.

The space plane has folding wings, allowing it to fit the rocket’s payload. During its first mission, Tenacity will spend 45 days on the ISS. Then it will return to Earth on the former Space Shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, instead of falling into the ocean as many spacecraft do. Sierra says the spacecraft can land on any compatible commercial runway.

“A dip in the ocean is horrible,” said Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space Ars Technica. “Landing on an airstrip is really fun.” The company claims that Dream Chaser can return payloads to Earth at less than 1.5 Gs, which is important to help protect sensitive payloads. The spaceplane will be capable of delivering up to 12,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS and approximately 4,000 pounds of cargo back to terra firma. Sierra plans for its Dream Chaser fleet to eventually carry humans to low Earth orbit as well.

As things stand now, SpaceX is the only company operating fully certified spacecraft for NASA missions. Boeing also won a contract to develop a capsule for NASA in 2014, but Starliner has not yet carried astronauts to the ISS. Sierra Nevada (which spawned Sierra Space in 2021) previously competed with those companies for contracts for NASA’s commercial crew program, but lost. However, after the company retooled Dream Chaser to focus on cargo operations for the time being, NASA chose Sierra to join its stable of cargo carriers in 2016.

Dream Chaser’s maiden voyage to the ISS has been a long time coming. It was originally scheduled for 2019, but the project was plagued by delays. COVID-19 exacerbated these as it limited supply chains for key components that Sierra Space needed before the company brought more construction work in-house. The company now aims to have a second human-reviewed version of Dream Chaser ready by 2026.

NASA has long been interested in using spaceplanes, dating back to the agency’s early days, and it seems closer than ever to being able to use such vehicles. Virgin Galactic (which just completed its fifth commercial flight on Thursday) uses spaceplanes for tourist and research flights; the vehicle is only capable of suborbital operations. With Dream Chaser, Sierra has higher goals.

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