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Chasing the dream of human spaceflight

Jonathan Amos | 08:28 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Form follows function, they say. And if a machine works like a dream, perhaps it ought to look like one as well. Right?

Dream Chaser

The Dream Chaser could be in orbit by 2014

I have no data to support this hypothesis but it seems to hold, from iPhones to Ferraris. I'm sure you can find examples to the contrary. But consider Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC) proposed Dream Chaser vehicle. It looks like a spacecraft ought to look.

This is one of the key US commercial human spaceflight projects now in development. The Dream Chaser already has quite a bit of heritage.

The design calls on a concept initially studied by Nasa about 20 years ago called the HL-20. SNC's vehicle would launch vertically atop a rocket like the Atlas 5. It would carry a crew of seven.

Missions might include crew rotation and cargo re-supply at the International Space Station, but there would be other destinations and duties for an adaptable vehicle like this as well.

Sierra Nevada Corporation was given the biggest award ($20m) last February in Nasa's "seed fund" programme to develop a private crewship capability.

Known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, it will soon announce another, larger round of financing; and SNC expects to be at the front of the queue again. Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, told me:

"This next round of funding, if it holds and it gets awarded, will give us all another year to mature our designs and at that point those who have real programmes will stand out self-evidently.
"We'd like to go to the space station. It's not the only thing we can do but I think we have a lot of value there. At the moment, there is no logical way to take things home from the space station [after the shuttle retires]. We can take three people home on a Soyuz but all the science work that's being done up there doesn't have a way to come back. Our vehicle has a particular use for that.
"Not only can it take people back and forth, but the science experiments that are done at the ISS can come back in their racks in our vehicle, and instead of being subject to the very high g-forces of a capsule landing in the ocean or on the steppes of Kazakhstan - we land on a runway; we have less than 2g when we land. You can go right up to the vehicle when it stops, because we have no hazardous material onboard, and take those experiments straight off.
"So, we have a very unique capability to maintain all the science work going on up there. To the extent that we can make the ISS a very functioning laboratory and maintain the integrity of the work they want to bring back - that seems to be a very good use of our vehicle."

SNC used last year's Nasa money to further work on the hybrid rockets that will power the Dream Chaser.

Dream Chaser drop test

The drop test of a model Dream Chaser returned important aerodynamic data

It was able to show Nasa that it could run these motors for the sorts of durations demanded on a full mission, and, critically, demonstrate a stop-start capability. In the rocket business, re-igniting a motor in the vacuum of space is a big deal.

SNC also built the basic structure, or chassis, of the first flight vehicle, and conducted drop tests on a scaled model. These drop tests, begun from a height of 4,000m, returned important aerodynamic data.

At the turn of the year, we got an interesting joint announcement from SNC and Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital venture that will use a derivative of the SpaceShipOne craft to take fare-paying passengers on short hops above 100km.

SNC is building the rocket motors for Virgin's new craft, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). But, usefully, from SNC's point of view, the tie-up means the flight model of Dream Chaser can soon begin drop tests using the other part of Branson's project - the SS2's carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo. Mark Sirangelo again:

"We're building the Dream Chaser flight vehicle right now. Next year, we should be fully testing the vehicle with atmospheric tests. And we're expecting to be flying orbital flights by 2014, so about three years from now. Our whole testing programme has humans onboard. We're using existing [launchers] so we don't have to be designing that, and our vehicle had 10 years of design with Nasa and six years with us - so it's fairly mature as a vehicle.
"There are other things we could do apart from going to the space station. The ability to service things in space goes away when the space shuttle goes away as well - the ability to repair a satellite, or move it to a new orbit, or to do other work in space. We're seeing this much like a utility vehicle that you could outfit for special purposes.
"We would have an airlock; we could put robotic arms on the vehicle to be able to grab things and manipulate them, using the same structure. This would be much like how Boeing and Airbus re-focus their aeroplanes for cargo or for re-fuelling or for fire interdiction. We can do that. Using the same basic frame, we could have a people version, have a cargo version or a utility version."

Looking at the artist's impression of the Dream Chaser atop the Atlas, it reminds me of the European Hermes shuttle and the way it would have been launched on the Ariane 5 if Esa member states hadn't killed it off.

Mark Sirangelo says Dream Chaser would work very nicely off the top of an Ariane. Are you interested Europe?

Dream Chaser launches on an Atlas 5

The Dream Chaser would launch atop an Atlas 5, but could launch on other vehicles as well




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  • 1. At 5:15pm on 26 Jan 2011, Simonm wrote:

    Common sense at last. A manned spaceship for launching people and bringing them - and it - home safely. And a heavylift cargo launcher which puts the maximum weight in orbit without half of it having to be put up there then brought down again and no life support and dafety equipment to carry. The shuttle missed the point that space travel to orbit is only two way when it comes to people, launching a 50 tonne vehicle (the shuttle) in order to lift 20 tonnes into orbit, then bringing the 50 tonne vehicle back, looks good but that's all!
    Commercial operators just aren't going to put up with such a silly concept.

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  • 2. At 10:20pm on 26 Jan 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    Firstly I suspect this would have attracted more comments if there was anything on the science and environment main page to indicate you had posted a new article Jonathan.

    As to Dreamchaser well it's the space shuttle designed by engineers rather than politicians. :) Simply placing the vehicle on top of the launcher rather than sidemount is a huge improvement. It eliminates the issue of debris strikes and increases the survival chances in the case of a catastrophic failure.
    I think if SpaceX can work out the bugs in their first stage recovery techniques the Falcon 9 would make a good partner for the Dreamchaser, maximizing the reusability.

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  • 3. At 11:00pm on 26 Jan 2011, callisto wrote:

    "Mark Sirangelo says Dream Chaser would work very nicely off the top of an Ariane. Are you interested Europe?"

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but this looks and sounds remarkably like the Hermes concept put about when Ariane 5 was in development. Europe has every reason to be interested. It was their idea.

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  • 4. At 11:30pm on 26 Jan 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    Sorry Callisto but no, the Hermes was inspired by the X-20 and the US lifting body designs of the 1960s/70s. They form a common origin for the HL-20, Dreamchaser and Hermes, hence the similarities.

    The origins of the HL-20 design, and hence the Dreamchaser, are explained in the HL-20 page Jonathan links above.

    Oh and I see a link to this article has now appeared on the science and environment page.

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  • 5. At 00:52am on 27 Jan 2011, kevin wrote:

    The virgin space plane is the way to go for manned space flight.Better still,HOTOL.Where is the vision?Earth orbit is great but we need a fifty year plan and commitment to space.To go back to the moon not just america.Then to mars.
    Ion drive propulsion for space probes going back to neptune and uranus.A robotic rover on titan.Radio space telescopes on the dark side of the moon.Obama has no vision and we invest money on nuclear weapons that i don`t want and that are worthless in technical and production value.
    The hard part is getting off the ground and rockets are cheap but we don`t fly from country to country on rockets.
    Then there are the military space planes from black ops programmes.Those that have replaced the blackbird.Anywhere in the world in 30 minutes.

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  • 6. At 09:38am on 27 Jan 2011, Robert Lucien wrote:

    kevin #5 Rockets are the most wastefully expensive machine ever invented, and they use them once AND THEY ARE THROWN AWAY. For a whole lot of reasons we keep choosing thew worst of all worlds in design - I hate to use the word but its become a tradition.
    Rockets do achieve some wonderful things but underlying everything is that the machine is only 10% efficient at most. The basic problems of rockets also follow spaceplanes but with tougher criteria - which is why they don't exist yet.
    Ion thrusters are very efficient but they will never be powerful enough to lift things into space, they are simply no where near powerful enough.

    As for those 'black ops' machines, they might have built them but they never worked, and if they did they are not space craft. I actually work in some fringe areas and one type I believe might have once been real were called 'field engine' flyers. They achieved thrust somehow using magnetism and very powerful electrical fields, they actually depended on generating EMP to work and were very unfriendly to other machines especially radio. Their ultimate power source involved a nuclear reaction in a plasma, and they were useless in space because they had to be air cooled...

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  • 7. At 10:10am on 27 Jan 2011, Quexlia wrote:

    Most of the folk who comment regularly on these blogs are far more knowledgable than I, so I'll restrict myself to simply saying; nice article JA, I look forward to hearing more of this.

    Also if I'm picky @5 Kevin, please, a space after punctuation marks? For all our sakes?

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  • 8. At 10:28am on 27 Jan 2011, Rich_Owl wrote:

    Johnathan, "Form follows function, they say. And if a machine works like a dream, perhaps it ought to look like one as well. ".

    To true. there's an old engineering saying that "if it looks wrong, it probably is" which sums this up in a similar way.

    Here's hoping to the success of this project - I wanna ride in it!

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  • 9. At 12:38pm on 27 Jan 2011, The Drain wrote:

    Didn't this first fly in the Simpsons? Homer visited the ISS on a Hermes/Dream Chaser lookalike vehicle.
    Sorry for the trivia. Jonathon, I do enjoy your blog and the many knowledgeable comments from other contributors that come with it.

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  • 10. At 1:09pm on 27 Jan 2011, Trisolde wrote:

    I am pleased that the “Old Shuttle” has had its day, but not sure if this is the way forward. There are numerous delivery systems for earth orbit payloads; we need to think bigger and better. We need to inspire a new generation with what we can do. A permanent moon base as a prelude to Mars has to be the way forward, technically it can be done, we just lack the inspiration and the will. Replacing the Old shuttle with a new one does not feel like progress

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  • 11. At 1:14pm on 27 Jan 2011, DCR wrote:

    Thinking about the retiring shuttle. Why put them in a museum? Why not pop them back into space, filled with cargo and fuel to act as depots for other craft. After all a mission to the moon in a dreamchaser type vehicle that was first put into orbit on an Atlas 5, refulled (possibly needing to attach some propulsion units in orbit and a lander) could easily traverse the quarter of a million miles. Staging posts such as these should be aimed at in order to manage the big journeys, rather than trying to bit it all off in one go.

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  • 12. At 1:43pm on 27 Jan 2011, annodomini2 wrote:

    @kev, HOTOL has been dead for years, the closest replacement is Skylon, please do keep up.

    @DCR, the shuttle's systems are designed only to keep the ship active for around 7days.

    This thing is not a new idea as has been mentioned and looks pretty much like a scaled up X-38.

    Shame they cancelled the Venture star project, now that would have been interesting if politics hadn't got in the way.

    Me personally I'm looking forward to seeing Skylon getting off the ground.

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  • 13. At 3:02pm on 27 Jan 2011, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    Thanks for the kind comments, as ever. @The Drain. You are right, Homer did go into space in what looked like a Dream Chaser. Although, to be honest, I think that's just the way the drawing of the shuttle turned out. As Homer might say, "no-one in space can hear you say d'oh". One of the interesting features I haven't mentioned here is the escape system employed by the vehicle. If, sitting on the pad or early in flight, its Atlas has a problem, the Dream Chaser would push itself off with its propulsion system and take itself away to land on a runway. This is very different to the escape tower for, say, Orion which would yank the capsule off the top of its rocket. SpaceX has put in for CCDev money in this new round. It would use the cash to develop an escape system for its Dragon capsule. You can see an animation here. Again, a "push me off" rather than a "yank me off" approach. The sequence is about 3'50" into the video.

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  • 14. At 6:04pm on 27 Jan 2011, marcos anthony toledo wrote:

    The Dream Liner is decades offer due if NASA haddened cancelled the X 20 in the 1960s who knows how far we would be in manned space the space shuttle was a over priced and dangerous veicle and a prima dana to use. I hope this works out so we can move out into space once and for all.

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  • 15. At 7:29pm on 27 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    Nice article, good to see the Dreamchaser getting some press over here. I disagree with the poster that said this doesn't seem like a step forward from the Shuttle - it is, quite a big one. Smaller is better in this case, easier to maintain between flights and far, far lighter to put into orbit (meaning smaller, cheaper rockets, of which there are quite a few now that are capable enough), which all results in a much cheaper, simpler system. A true Space Transportation System, getting people up and down from space regularly, safely and sustainably.

    There's another proposal being put forward along a similar line to this by Orbital, a spaceplane launched atop an Atlas 5, also in partnership with Virgin Galactic I believe. I hope one of the two get funded.

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  • 16. At 10:08pm on 27 Jan 2011, Robert_W_Robinson wrote:

    This is not new at all - it is a modernisation of the DynaSoar proposal of the late 1960/early 1970s which was intended to provide a missile/anti satellite defence system. The main difference is that the original scheme had two re entry vehicles, heat shield to heat shield,mounted on top.

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  • 17. At 00:19am on 28 Jan 2011, britishgoose wrote:

    it looks like a copy of the virgin galactica ship,as always US stealing other designs

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  • 18. At 00:38am on 28 Jan 2011, Synsei wrote:

    @annodomini2 HOTOL has been dead for years, the closest replacement is Skylon, please do keep up.

    The thing is bud, HOTOL is only dead because Reagan lent on Thatcher to can the project as he was worried that it would kill the Shuttle program. If it hadn't been for Reagan and Thatchers cosy relationship, we would probably be watching HOTOL's taking off from major airports today and NASA may not have had to mourn the loss of so many astronauts...

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  • 19. At 01:16am on 28 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    The Virgin Galactic ship (SpaceShipTwo) is a suborbital ship (leaves Earth's atmosphere for a very short period of time only). It's a nice design and one that I hope succeeds over the years, but with far lesser capability than that promised by Dreamchaser, and orbital craft designed to reach the ISS. SS2 is also designed about built by Scaled Composites, a US company, despite the bankrolling from Virgin.

    It's also not a modernisation of Dynasoar (X-20), it's a modernisation of HL-20, designed closer to 1990 as a crew transporter.

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  • 20. At 06:34am on 28 Jan 2011, Robert Lucien wrote:

    One could find ways to be very critical of much that happens in space at the moment (mainly in how it gets there) but this little craft offers a lot of very useful capabilities and is a good compromise between fully reusable and completely expendable solutions. The human compartment and reentry vehicle are very expensive components, and reentry bodies (with wings) are definitely a far better solution than capsules in quite a few ways.

    The interesting thing is that the US Air Force has just finished a test on a fairly similar machine. - The Boeing X-37 Fully automated and unmanned it went up on an Atlas 5 and spent several months in space and then landed safely.

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  • 21. At 3:00pm on 28 Jan 2011, Morphius Bane wrote:

    I'll eat my hat if this is in orbit with crew by 2014.

    Rockets are the most brutal and direct way of getting stuff into orbit. I wish there wa a better way, but right now there isn't.

    Once in orbit, it's not much better. Ion engines look futuristic and cool (and are brilliantly efficient) but months of time just to reach a respectable velocity?(admittedly a rather high one once fuel is spent) Not enough punch in my opinion and too ponderous.

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  • 22. At 01:58am on 29 Jan 2011, gvgoebel wrote:

    "And if a machine works like a dream, perhaps it ought to look like one as well. Right?"

    A well-established principle for aircraft designers: "If it looks right, it flies right."

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  • 23. At 10:57am on 29 Jan 2011, Dan wrote:

    A very good idea and one that will succeed because it the best concept. If only Robert Macnamara has realised this when he cancelled the pretty much identical DynaSoar project in the 1960's, mainly because it was a ship in search of a mission.

    It's what the shuttle could, and should have been. Politicial and military interference ruined that project, leading to billion dollar launch costs. The shuttle is also fundamentally unsafe because the vehicle is right next to the solid fuel boosters and main fuel tank, the cause of both the well known disasters. The tragedy of the whole sorry affair is that engineers pointed out these lethal flaws at the design stage.

    The space programme is full of projects that were cancelled and should not have been. Shuttle in the current form is one that carried on for political reasons, it should have been cancelled in 1982.

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  • 24. At 11:55am on 29 Jan 2011, Aelfred wrote:

    Great article Jon. Can you tell us what is powering the spaceplane while it is in orbit away from the ISS? Spacex's Dragon, the X-37, and the Soyuz all use extendable solar wings. The shuttle alone uses fuel cells, which are limiting. Batteries would be limiting too. Thanks!

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  • 25. At 3:46pm on 29 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    Dan wrote: "The shuttle is also fundamentally unsafe because the vehicle is right next to the solid fuel boosters and main fuel tank, the cause of both the well known disasters."

    Not to mention that it has no form of abort system, so if the rocket or spacecraft does break up, there's nothing you can do. Didn't the crew of Challenger survive the initial explosion, only to perish on impact?

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  • 26. At 5:29pm on 29 Jan 2011, rondub wrote:

    Excellent article JA - from the depths of my memory, there seemed to have been, during the concept design stage for the space shuttle, a 2 stage system proposed - with identical & interchangeable body frames for the orbiter and booster vehicles. These would be attached back-to-back at launch - just wondering would that have been the goal for Dynasoar?

    Of course one would argue that even the cost of development, without consideration for the cost of each launch and alternative booster vehicles / methods would render this option obsolete thesedays. How ironic is it for the US government is asking for another Sputnik moment in this recessionary backdrop!

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  • 27. At 7:43pm on 29 Jan 2011, Dan wrote:

    Joe Chip wrote "Not to mention that it has no form of abort system, so if the rocket or spacecraft does break up, there's nothing you can do. Didn't the crew of Challenger survive the initial explosion, only to perish on impact?"

    Quite so - a comprehensive list of the lethal design compromises would fill a book. But it gets worse. There was political interference too.

    For example, why on earth were the solid rocket boosters made in segments with O rings at the connections ? From an engineering point of view it could have been made in one piece (as with regular rockets), with fewer parts and lower manufacturing costs because of the absence of complicated pressure tight joints vulnerable to low temperatures. But awarding the contract to that specification wasn't politically convenient.

    Shuttle is worthy of study by any engineering undergraduate as an example of how NOT to run an aerospace project.

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  • 28. At 00:04am on 30 Jan 2011, SONICBOOMER wrote:

    17, hate to break it to you, but the 'Virgin' craft IS a US design, it is in fact the product of the fertile mind of one Burt Rutan an American aircraft designer.
    You might want to consider the fact that Mr Branson is a master of marketing, he's even better at co-opting other people's work and passing it off as his own.

    All he is doing with 'his' spacecraft is finance and marketing, please do not believe all his hype, as someone who was involved with a certain supersonic airliner we had all this 7 years ago, (where his actual 'plan' there was to try and get one, when retired in a museum, painted in Virgin colours so that people would believe he had something to do with it, aside from actually flying as a passenger on BA ones using his airline staff discounted ticket - being a multi millionaire naturally).

    Besides - and this might be his hype again - the 'Virgin' spacecraft is sub-orbital, that is it briefly enters space - just - nowhere near attaining orbit so therefore nothing like the machine depicted in this thread, or a Shuttle or any other manned spacecraft since Yuri Gagarin in 1961, (though the initial US flights on Mercury were also sub-orbital flights lasting 15 mins before John Glenn attained orbit in 1962).

    The Virgin craft's maximum speed will be Mach 3, way, way short of what you need you enter space proper.
    So this craft will have no actual role supporting the space station or anything else besides it's sub orbital tourist role. Though it might one day form the basis of something more substantial.
    We will see.

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  • 29. At 3:00pm on 30 Jan 2011, daryan wrote:

    While I hate to be a stick in the mud here, I think its important to recognise a few points. Firstly, the reason SpaceX, Orbital and Boeing are all plumbing for capsules is that they are quicker and easier to develop. Many attempts have been made to develop a little mini-shuttle and none has ever succeeded. Also there is the weight penalty imposed by those wings, although it does, as noted in the article, produce a arguably superior vehicle. It is doubtful they’ll be able to cramp 7 people into one of these things and remain within the 9 ton payload limit mentioned on their website...then again, I’d question the ability of SpaceX, Boeing and Orbital to squeeze 6-7 people into their capsules too!

    It’s also important we debunk the myth that Dynasoar or Hermes were cancelled because those penny pinching fools in government didn’t understand anything. No, they were cancelled because the governments in question feared that they either weren’t going to work or cost a lot more to develop than originally thought and even then still deliver performance well below expectations. The article below details why Dynasoar was cancelled and I suspect the same principles apply to Hermes, and indeed possibly to Dream Chaser.

    Cult spacecraft Part One: The Little Spaceplane That Couldn't

    One point made in the link above is the difficulty of providing thermal protection for a spaceplane, especially if you want to avoid the costly and labour intensive ceramic tile system used on the Shuttle. When I see what heat shield system they plan to use, I’ll take this proposal a little more seriously.

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  • 30. At 5:19pm on 30 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    Daryan - All fair points. The TPS they use will be a big factor, and we'll have to wait and see about that. Should note one correction to you however - Orbital have put forward a CCDev proposal for a lifting body too (I believe they call it a blended lifting body, or BLB), also launched on an Atlas.

    There are undoubted technical challenges for spaceplanes, but they can work. With modern design tools and manufacturing processes, the mistakes of 50 years ago with Dyna-Soar can hopefully be avoided.

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  • 31. At 5:50pm on 30 Jan 2011, Dan wrote:

    The article that Daryan quotes from does indeed detail the shortcomings of the DynaSoar project - but it also states this :

    "If X-20 had actually flown in the late 1960s, that instrumentation would have supplied the Shuttle's designers with a priceless data base. They would not have been forced to rely completely on wind-tunnel data and primitive computer models and would have produced a better design. For instance, the Orbiters carry two tons of lead blocks in their noses to compensate for an error in aerodynamic models, and X-20 data might well have prevented this mistake."

    The article makes the case that a modified Shuttle design would have been successful had DynaSoar gone ahead - and would not have cost $100 billion plus the lives of two crews. Or alternatively, NASA could have decided to cancel both projects. Either result would have been much better than the current situation.

    The recent unmanned X37 does show that the spaceplane concept can work. The idea is sound, but has been badly let down so far by ham fisted execution.

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  • 32. At 6:16pm on 30 Jan 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    In response to Daryan's points. Space X and Orbital are developing capsules because the initial missions for Dragon and Cygnus will be cargo carrying and the COTS schedule doesn't really allow for the acknowledged complexities of developing a winged orbiter. Speed is also the reason for the design of the Boeing CST-100, though there the issue is playing catch up with the competition, Dragon having flown and the first Cygnus module due to fly in the middle of this year, not to mention the drop and engine tests SNC have performed, they actually are a lot further forward than the simpler CST-100.
    As to TPS there is a great deal more data available on that subject than there was when the shuttle was built(perhaps another reason for the X-20 program to have gone ahead?) and the X-37B should provide more, though when the USAF might share that is anyone's guess.
    Also SNC is looking to a broader future market than just the ISS, Bigelow is planning to launch their first station in 2014 and if commercial stations do exist a transport system that can offer a 'smoother ride' might well be a winner.
    More broadly this isn't just about backing the coolest option, it's about having as many people working in the commercial space field trying to move the technology forward and hoping that some of them succeed in opening up access. Though I won't deny Dreamchaser has a very high coolness factor. :)

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  • 33. At 6:31pm on 30 Jan 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    Joe Chip, Orbital built the X-34 spaceplane which late last year was taken out of mothballs by NASA with a view to perhaps returning it to flight status. Maybe that relates to the new proposal. I've seen some images of the OSC proposal and it looks similar to Dreamchaser but the wings are much 'flatter' and turn up at the ends. They don't seem to have named it so far.

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  • 34. At 7:08pm on 30 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    They did indeed, there's actually a thread on the proposal over at Nasaspaceflight - - with some very interesting info about it, including some insight into the design methodology and why that shape was chosen. I think the return of X34 seems to be a coincidence, but that was the ship that began their interest in the spaceplane concept. They're a dark horse, for sure.

    You also make a very good point about a broad future customer base, rather than just NASA. Virgin have partnered with both Sierra Nevada and Orbital in their bids, clearly to show that both designs have a future in the space tourism trade, this time in orbital terms. A spaceplane, in my (layman, admittedly) opinion, will be far more marketable than a capsule. The high-gee ballistic re-entry, in comparison to a lifting body's relatively sedate return to earth, loses out. When you're talking about cost and profitability of a program (which, of course, commercial is all about), that could be a factor. Plus, if Dream Chaser/Orbital's craft can get a decent tourist market going, it'll also be getting a solid flight rate - reducing costs and frequently testing the craft itself. More data - better development - future improvements.

    All in all, very exciting if you ask me. Past failures prevent me from getting too carried away, but still, exciting nonetheless.

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  • 35. At 7:11pm on 30 Jan 2011, SONICBOOMER wrote:

    18, HOTOL in fact 'died' because further tests and calculations showed the craft would have had severe centre of gravity problems as fuel was used up, a truncated version was later mooted, with one idea being to airborne launch it from a Russian AN-225 (a huge 6 engined transport jet).
    Nothing to do with 'Reagan leaning on Thatcher' (not that she would ever have seriously funded it anyway).

    Another point about the question of why the Shuttle's SRB's were in segments - the contractor was in a land locked US State (Utah) so sea transport of one piece SRB's to the Cape was not possible.
    Why did a Utah company get the contract - a much bigger solid booster than anything they'd built before?
    Pork Barrel Politics I'm afraid, the final Shuttle configuration was designed by Grumman, but Rockwell - later absorbed by Boeing - got the contract.
    Grumman was in a solid Democratic state, in 1972 California was then a swing state in elections, indeed it was Nixon's home turf, the selection of contractors was purely political, not the first or last time this has happened, whoever is in power, though the main reasons the Shuttle avoided the large NASA cuts by Nixon, was the interest of the Pentagon and those politically helpful contracts.

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  • 36. At 01:59am on 31 Jan 2011, daryan wrote:

    31 @ Dan,
    I would note that the writer of the article I referenced is a noted shuttle basher. The point he was actually making was if Dynasoar had gone ahead they would have come to the conclusion that winged orbiters were a waste of time (a blind alley as he calls it)and money, cancelled Dynasoar after a few flights, never have built shuttle or indeed all the various winged orbiters proposed since then (Venture Star, Skylon, etc.) or indeed Dream Chaser.

    32 @ Mike Mullen,

    The problem with the TPS is the issue of cost and reliablity. X-37 isn't much use as its heavily classfied and unmanned, plus backed by military cash. Indeed correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought X-37 used the same form of ceramic tiles like the shuttle....which are labour intensive to maintain and with a rather long turn around time....the very factors that made shuttle uneconomic?

    And speaking of money, its going to be more expensive to develop a reliable winged vehicle than a capsule and many people have tried to develop winged vehicles before and have either failed or the vehicle has delivered performance well below expectations. We don't know how big the market for private space use will be and if its small (to begin with) then I'm not sure the money would there to justify development of such a vehicle as Dream Chaser.

    A comfortable ride counts for nothing against the issue of safety. As the article I reference points out Dynasoar would have had few if any escape or abort options. Again I doubt you could squeeze 7 seats with a high altitude ejection system (and one presume space suits for everyone) into Dream Chaser. An abort rocket big enough to pull it away from its launch vehicle would be fairly large and heavy (eating into payload). Dynasoar needed the upper stage of a minuteman rocket and it was much smaller.

    While its important to do research on such things lets not get carried away.

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  • 37. At 10:48am on 31 Jan 2011, daryan wrote:

    32 @ Mike Mullen, "SNC...are alot further along than CST-100"….true, but Boeing can get CST-100 up & running with a few test flights, Dream Chaser is going to be a bit more complicated.

    The existing model tests will need to be continued with something approaching an actual full scale and serviceable airframe. This program will probably involve captive flights tests, powered flights, glider landings, followed by sub-orbital flights building up to the first short orbital hops, then in orbit tests. This program, if other winged orbiter programs are anything to go by, will be likely unkind to the test vehicles and one or more may be worn out or written off during these tests (but hay! That’s the whole point of testing, better to break one in testing than with fare paying passengers on board!)

    While this is ongoing, the TPS will needed to be developed and tested as well. As will the crew escape systems. These may both require a further series of separate tests being performed.

    Finally there is the launch vehicle. As the article I referenced before points out you can’t put a winged vehicle on top of a rocket, as it will make the rocket want to tip over as it accelerates through the atmosphere. Either they’ll need to put a really big payload shroud over it (which eats into our payload budget and complicates crew escape) or else maybe put fins on the base of the rocket to counter-act these forces. Either way, these modifications will need testing with a boiler plate version of Dream Chaser on top, and I doubt Lockmart are going to undertake such testing (or the design work needed to modify Atlas) free of charge.

    It’s important to emphasise, nothing I’ve said is a show stopper, but it’s equally important to acknowledge there’s a good reason why proposals like Dream Chaser have been made before, but not gotten very far in development.

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  • 38. At 12:13pm on 31 Jan 2011, The_Oncoming_Storm wrote:

    The irony is that the current Shuttle is nothing like the vehicle that NASA originally proposed in the late 1960's. However the design was heavily modified to enable it to launch and return with large, military spy satellites even though designers at the time foresaw that the crew would be vulnerable to Challenger and Columbia type scenarios. Nixon was no friend of the manned space programme and I suspect he would have shut the whole thing down if he could have, but as Sonic Boomer says this would have meant the loss of thousands of highly skilled workers in his Californian power base. The military certainly didn't want the Shuttle preferring to keep their expendable Titans and Atlases, one USAF general caustically commented that "relying on NASA to launch spy satellites is like SAC needing Pan Am to bomb Moscow!"

    Something we've discussed about before is that in hindsight it may well have been better to have gone with the Apollo Applications Programme and just kept developing Apollo in the way that Soyuz has. America has used 6 different manned launch system since 1961, in that time the Russians have just used enhanced versions of Korolov's R-7!

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  • 39. At 1:06pm on 31 Jan 2011, Dan wrote:

    An interesting link on the unmanned spaceplane X37B that's just flown.

    This is actually a transcript of the X37B press conference. The speaker is understandably coy about giving away things like cross range or its ability to change orbits - which it can definitely do because it was spotted doing it ! The specifications show a delta-v of over 3 km/sec which would be enough for multiple orbit changes.

    There is a brief reference to 'new' thermal insulation tiles. Again being coy, but it does look like there have been improvements here over shuttle.

    I do agree with the point that a winged launch vehicle is always going to lose out to a capsule for cost and cargo space. But this X37B is doing lots of useful things, none of them spectacularly well but such a range of capabilities in a single resusable vehicle is obviously attractive for the USAF. E.g. if they wanted to launch several satellites to different orbits. Or capture a satellite from a hostile power - even if it tried to escape it would not have delta-v to match the X37B.

    Weaponisation of space - possibly. The project is being run by the US Air Force, isn't that what they are supposed to do ?

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  • 40. At 2:31pm on 31 Jan 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    Daryan - The shuttle's tiles are expensive to maintain because it's a huge orbiter - 120 ft long with a wingspan of just under 80 ft. Compare that to Dream Chaser's (according to wiki) 30 ft by 23 ft. Still not an afternoon's work, but not quite as demanding to check and potentially replace all those tiles. And as Dan says, the technology could have moved on an awful lot in the 30 years since the Shuttle's design. That's also if they aren't planning on using some kind of metallic system - untried but a lot of studies were done for X33. Either way, deciding on the TPS was part of their first objective for the NASA program, which was signed off as "completed" in March 10, so both SNC and NASA are well aware of and happy with the system they'll be using (and its cost and testing process). In addition to all that, I read somewhere that the thing that most impressed NASA about the BOR-4 (Soviet ship that HL-20 was, essentially, nicked from) was its relatively low heating on re-entry.

    On the launch vehicle - SNC and ULA have had an agreement on the Atlas for several years, they'll have decided for themselves whether it's possible by now. If the Shuttle system can launch properly with a 100 ton winged orbiter clinging to its side, and if it could be designed in the late 70s, the challenge for Dream Chaser doesn't seem quite as large. Sure there'll be some mods needed, but they no doubt already know what they are, have plans for implementing them and are happy with the costs involved. Could be something as simple as avionics, we don't know.

    JPSLotus79 - It is amazing that the Russians have stuck to that launcher for so long (allowing for mods, of course), must have a ridiculous number of launches under its belt altogether. Well over 1000 according to wiki.

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  • 41. At 10:20am on 01 Feb 2011, TonyP wrote:

    some of the discussion here is about the re-usability of the proposed craft.

    Some questions come to my mind:
    1) Can the current Soyuz re-entry craft be re-used/re-furbished?
    2) If not, is it simply that when you look at the total cost of a flight, the cost of providing the bit that the humans sit in is really small?

    oh and while I'm wondering out loud, are there any plans to make the Dragon capsule in any way re-usable (either the whole thing, or equipment from it)?


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  • 42. At 5:35pm on 01 Feb 2011, daryan wrote:

    @ 40, Joe Chip,

    The Shuttle was attached to the side of the main tank, with the wings well towards the aft of the launch stack. Dream Chaser seems to put the wings at the very top (where you want it to be for safety reasons), right where they’ll cause the most interference. It’s like putting the winglets on the tip of an arrow rather than at the base. Also Shuttle was a very different beast at launch (with those large SRB’s). Its possible there is some simple work around I’ve not thought of, but either way you don’t want to be ironing out these problems on you’re first commercial launch, some boilerplate testing would be a good idea.

    Which is the wider point I’m trying to make - Dream Chaser, and similar ideas, will need an extensive testing program as we have very little (or no) experience at launching man-rated lifting body type space planes to these sorts of speeds and altitudes. The X-37’s results, and the data from the Shuttle program and the various other abortive proposals may help, but that’s all. A comprehensive test program is still necessary, if we want something man-rated sufficiently to carry space tourists, and that could take a while and be a tad expensive.

    By contrast capsules, while they do need testing to man rate them, are a lot less complicated as over the last 60 years of space flight almost every conceivable shape of re-entry vehicle and heat shield combination you could wave a stick at, has been subjected to comprehensive ballistic testing of some sorts. If not as part of the manned space programs, then as part of various military programs, or re-entry modules for space probes. The Boffins have actually gone out into desert more than once with a load of sounding rockets and just fired off every type of re-entry vehicle shape they could think of purely to see how they performed in re-entry. Even so, its no surprise that all the proposed capsules look remarkably like Apollo command modules (or Soyuz rentry modules) cos that’s what we know works.

    Metallic TPS?...oh, I hope not! One can blame that choice of metallic TPS as being in part responsible for the downfall of the X-20, and indeed possibly the X-33 and Delta Clipper.

    …..Of course, just because we’ve ALWAYS used capsules with ablative heat shields doesn’t mean we ALWAYS should! Let’s just not kid ourselves into thinking developing an alternative is going to be easy! That’s all I’m saying.

    @ 41, Nerderello,

    My understanding is that SpaceX plans to make the Dragon capsules reusable...eventually! As to their timetable for that I’m not sure. What I’m more interested in is the idea of making the lower stage reusable. As you said, only a tiny bit of the craft actually carries people, as compared to the first stage of any rocket. That could be a major game changer, and could help them to seriously push down the costs of launches.

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  • 43. At 2:55pm on 03 Feb 2011, Keith johnson wrote:

    Great stuff, what about Syklon? see link below

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  • 44. At 9:46pm on 03 Feb 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    #43 Keith Johnson

    I'm certainly excited about Skylon. The key testing is due to start July this year if memory serves. It will essentially test the operation of the intercooler with a Viper jet engine. With that proof of concept the rest is just money and engineering. :)

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  • 45. At 1:30pm on 05 Feb 2011, pahane wrote:

    Dan at post #23 says McNamara dubbed DynaSoar "a ship in search of a mission". I totally agree. Looks to me like that would apply equally to the X-20, X-33, Delta Clipper and the new Dreamchaser, not to mention the shuttle, which seemed to spend most of its 25 years or so on life support, casting around for a reason not to die.

    Many of the posts here bemoan the lack of will to make human spaceflight beyond LEO a reality. Many of the same posts seem to me to be overheavy on the engineering of getting something into orbit. You can talk ablative shields, wind tunnel testing, Atlas mods and capsule versus space plane all day. But if you don't have a mission, it won't get built.

    I hate to play devil's advocate (and to come to this post about a week late). But can anyone answer the basic question: Why bother?

    Surely we're not going to all this trouble for what will essentially be a bus to the ISS - a ship in search of a mission if there ever was one and a planetary scale version of the Shuttle's pork barrel politics.

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  • 46. At 4:03pm on 05 Feb 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    The mission, in brief, is to be a provider of regular and cheap human access to space. Even if NASA is going BEO, LEO will still need a significant presence, and it makes sense that that is taken over by private endeavours. They can supply and return crew and cargo to ISS, go to any planned private space station (Bigelow), and taxi crew up to any BEO ship. They're trying to enliven an entirely new industry that will actually development a real LEO infrastructure that NASA can take advantage of whilst doing BEO exploration.

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  • 47. At 9:39pm on 05 Feb 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    Pahane; CCdev is aimed at supporting the ISS in the first instance but unlike the previous programs this one is being run on a commercial basis with NASA funding contingent on proven performance, and the only way the competing companies will make real money is to find a market beyond NASA. Look up the difference between cost-plus contracts and COTS/CCDev.

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  • 48. At 00:12am on 06 Feb 2011, pahane wrote:

    Joe and Mike - Thanks for the explanations. LEO infrastructure is a pre-requisite for BEO. And CCDev is incomparably more efficient than cost-plus. But I still don't know WHY. Why are we going BEO? Why do we want a dynamic, competitive space market?

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  • 49. At 01:52am on 06 Feb 2011, Joe Chip wrote:

    Why do we want human spaceflight? Because we're a curious species, and it is more than possible. There's no real utilitarian reason for it other than that. I've not been able to convert a HSF sceptic yet, because to me the desire for it is tautological and unexplainable. You either want it or don't, I suppose.

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  • 50. At 12:42pm on 06 Feb 2011, pahane wrote:

    Joe - That's my point I suppose: I am a HSF enthusiast and I too have failed to convert a single sceptic which could explain why HSF is still a dream. Instead of debating the finer points of engineering, shouldn't we put our heads together and come up with a convincing narrative for HSF?

    Jonathan - Perhaps you could kick this off with a blog on the issue?

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  • 51. At 5:24pm on 06 Feb 2011, Mike Mullen wrote:

    A good starting point to create such a narrative is to look at the plans that Bigelow Aerospace has. While the media has talked about space hotels because of Robert Bigelow's background what he is actually proposing initially is more of an orbital laboratory or business park. Adding that COTS and CCDev and we may be heading for a tipping point at which commercial manned space activity becomes viable.

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  • 52. At 04:31am on 07 Feb 2011, Sly wrote:

    so they got 20 milion to develop ship this year...
    and how about projects that would revolutionize space transport..
    making it 10 times cheaper ...

    Reaction Engine is working on SKYLON project which major part is hybrid air-liquid oxygene rocket engine Sabre#
    and they struggle to get finace, barely got 7 mil Euros from ESA
    You dont have to be brainy to get the message that if You develop low Eart transport that is 10 times cheaper
    You are simply saving money ...
    other promising development associated with this project is building a
    dock - shipyard on orbit
    and having VASIMR engines from ADASTRA Ltd, ship powered by reactor,
    Mars could be reched (they say) in 39 days ...
    and having ship capable of penetrating whole solar system
    thas a lot ... isn't it...
    pity I'm not a rich man
    I would help bringing the biggest adventure of mankind closer

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  • 55. At 11:51pm on 10 Feb 2011, Stephen Ashworth wrote:

    To answer pahane and others at posts 45-50: why are we going to LEO and BEO? I've been thinking about this question for 40 years or so, and this is what I've come up with.

    The short-term answer is because our civilisation is founded on the principle of growth, while most of the natural resources of value to industry are extraterrestrial, and now coming within reach. We're not yet ready to shut down growth and become a static society, particularly as there is still enormous poverty in the world and large regions are still in the process of industrialising. We need the option of space solar power (shale gas and nuclear fission can tide us over for a few centuries, but not forever), and we need to create new high-tech industries to take up the employment slack in developed countries as more routine jobs migrate to China and India.

    The basic immediate utilitarian reason we need space tourism, manufacturing and power industries is thus simply to ensure growth in employment, and in high-tech jobs demanding the best from people.

    Looking longer term, you have to ask: is it possible for a global industrial civilisation to survive for long? I think not, because it is too closely interconnected. One or two thousand years ago, Rome could fall and it didn't affect China or the Incas. Today, as the saying goes, if Wall Street sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. In addition to global economic problems, we're now too vulnerable to global climate change (caused by pollution, or by regular climate cycles, or by dust from asteroid impact or volcanic eruptions), to global war (I was brought up during the Cold War), to unpredictable economic or international stresses caused by new advances in nanotechnology, or genetics, or information technology, or something that hasn't yet been invented.

    Therefore if we have ambitions for our civilisation to survive long-term, and especially if we have ambitions for it to fulfil its creative potential -- including making the heritage of life and culture on Earth safe from long-term threats (ultimately of course the death of the Earth in a few hundred million years time, tho that's probably looking a bit further ahead than most people like to do) -- then we need to spread out into the Solar System, and ultimately to the stars. In this way, our geographical spread becomes once again much larger than the distances which our transport technologies can easily cross, our civilisation becomes loosely rather than tightly interconnected, and if Earth falls, Mars (and even more so, Pluto) are relatively unaffected, and can even send aid to restore civilisation on Earth (a cosmic Marshall plan) or recolonise it as necessary.

    Ultimately, if we want our civilisation and our culture to survive in the long term and to go on creating new forms of culture, if we want it to be a permanent influence on the future of life in the Galaxy, then we must colonise space. Otherwise we may be certain that over a timescale of a few centuries to millennia our industrial civilisation will decline and fall, and within a few million years our species (like other non-industrial large mammal species) will become extinct with nothing to show for the centuries of pain and striving which have brought us this far.

    But this is just philosophy. In the political and commercial arenas, it is more useful for us to focus on the immediate practical issues of ensuring jobs, growth and energy options, as mentioned above. Thinking of the economic growth required for a future where passenger spaceplanes are making hourly departures for space hotels, while lunar and asteroidal materials are being mined to create multi-kilometre sized space power arrays (Gerard O'Neill's vision), may make this a more concrete prospect.

    Hope this helps.

    Oxford, UK

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  • 56. At 2:31pm on 15 Apr 2011, ALF wrote:

    I was never a fan of the Space Shuttle. It was too small and the potential was never lived up to largely because of the two crashes when I think the US lost its nerve. This Dream Chaser and the Heavy lift rockets have their uses but so does the Space Shuttle if humans wish to have serious manned exploration.

    The space shuttle is still necessary and could have a realistic role as a "shuttle" collecting equipment lauched from Earth on heavy lift rockets, such as components to build the next wave of reusable interplanetary and transported to and assembled using the Shuttle's robotic arm. The shuttle could carry a team of engineers in full suits to work on assembly from say the ISS to the assembly point a safe distance away. Rather than wasting a project like the Shuttle by dumping the remaining shuttles in museums, they need to be placed permanently in space for further use to build the future. They need to be refuelled and serviced but if humans are serious about manned space flight they will have to do it anyway.

    If left in space, the rigours of take off and landing on the shuttle would be avoided and if there was ever a serious emergency on say the ISS, a Shuttle could if necesary still carry more than the ever reliable Soyuz and either wait in orbit or come back to Earth.

    With current technology launching a vehicle from Earth to say Mars with a full fuel load and supplies and back again with a crew is not feasible, the size would be enormous. Building a large modular space vessel in low earth orbit and sending that to the planets is.

    A modular large craft would be reusable, could be built as large as necessary even made larger if necessary with additional modules and tested on say a Moon trip, particularly for the necessary radiation shielding for the crew quarters.

    Provision could be made to carry one of the shuttles on this craft to Moon/Mars and used in orbit to collect supply pallets pre-launched before arrival and bring them back to the main craft rather than wasting its fuel chasing supplies. This again is where its cargo bay has its use. Perhaps even the recovery of planetary lander craft launched back into space from the planetary surface could be a shuttle mission.

    Scrapping the shuttles is an error and one which will come back to haunt. Sorry this is long but I do not see any "vision" for manned spaceflight on this world and thought I would share mine.

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  • 57. At 01:15am on 16 Apr 2011, AllenT2 wrote:

    callisto wrote:

    "Europe has every reason to be interested. It was their idea."

    Wrong. Such an "idea" was being explored and developed long before even the Shuttle was built and long before so-called "Europe" had something resembling a space program. The now flying X-37 is an example of something very similar.

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  • 58. At 01:22am on 16 Apr 2011, AllenT2 wrote:

    britishgoose wrote:

    "it looks like a copy of the virgin galactica ship,as always US stealing other designs"

    Apparently you don't realize that the "virgin galactica ship" is American designed and built.

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