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Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada’s slick new space plane ditches capsules for the shuttle route

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Aug 15, 2020, 9:07 PM EDT

Soaring into the wild blue yonder and beyond, the planet's only non-capsule, private orbital spacecraft, Dream Chaser, is slated to make its first flight sometime next year shuttling supplies and cargo to the International Space Station for NASA.

This stylish unmanned space plane was recently given its official name, Tenacity, and a pair of exotic composite material wings to complete its sleek design. Constructed by the Colorado-based aerospace firm Sierra Nevada Corporation, Dream Chaser is meant to launch vertically atop a booster rocket and completes its missions with gliding runway landings similar to NASA's retired fleet of space shuttles. 

Tenacity is tentatively scheduled to blast off for its debut in late 2021, locked to the tip of a powerful United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

"It's an SUV for space — a Space Utility Vehicle," Kimberly Schwandt, Sierra Nevada's communications director, told Space. "Our dream is to have a whole fleet of space planes."

Dream Chaser alone is able to haul roughly 2,000 pounds of supplies and cargo. Its spacious 16-foot-tall cargo module, named Shooting Star, can be added onto the space plane to bolster its maximum capacity to 12,000 pounds. Following a routine transfer of cargo, astronauts will be able to load up the Shooting Star with garbage. As Tenacity drops back into Earth's atmosphere, this disposable module will detach and burn up during the reentry procedure.

But before this workhorse was converted to a blue-collar space truck, Dream Chaser was initially conceived to carry actual humans, with Sierra Nevada winning multiple developmental funding rounds via NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Sadly, the Louisville-headquartered corporation missed out on the top prize after NASA ultimately awarded the astronaut-shuttling contracts to Boeing and SpaceX back in 2014. 

However, as a nice consolation, NASA chose Dream Chaser as one of the flagship services for its Commercial Resupply Services 2 program, selecting Sierra Nevada to embark on 12 uncrewed cargo trips to the ISS by 2024.

For the conversion, Sierra Nevada simply altered approximately 20% of Dream Chaser's main module to transform it from a passenger spacecraft to a cargo plane. Even though it's regulated to providing resupply missions for NASA for the time being, there's no reason it can't be re-commissioned at a later date to provide reliable astronaut transportation.

Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Tenacity's inaugural flight won't be fully loaded next year, but will be launched empty to test its systems and capabilities. For the future, Sierra Nevada's plan is to build additional Dream Chasers to enter into service with Tenacity as demand increases and the industry matures.