The first orbital Dream Chaser space plane recently got its wings, and a name. Tenacity is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2021. Dream Chaser, which is built by Colorado-based company Sierra Nevada Corp., is the world’s only non-capsule private orbital spacecraft. The winged vehicle will launch vertically atop a rocket but end its missions with runway landings, like NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiters used to do.
This spring, the company unboxed the wings for the first operational Dream Chaser vehicle, bringing it one step closer to delivering supplies and science to and from the International Space Station. Tenacity is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2021, aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once it’s up and running, the space plane will carry cargo to and from the space station for NASA. Dream Chaser’s runway landings will allow efficient retrieval and removal of scientific gear coming back to Earth, which will also enjoy a relatively smooth ride down to the ground, Sierra Nevada representatives said.
Dream Chaser was originally designed to carry people, and Sierra Nevada won several rounds of funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop the vehicle. However, the company lost out to Boeing and SpaceX when NASA awarded astronaut-ferrying contracts in 2014. But in 2016, NASA selected the space plane for its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, awarding Sierra Nevada a contract to fly six uncrewed cargo missions to the space station by 2024.
Sierra Nevada needed to change out only about 20% of Dream Chaser’s module to transition from a passenger vehicle to a cargo plane, said Anna Hare, a company communications representative. Sierra Nevada therefore hasn’t ruled out a crew-carrying future for the space plane at some point. “To go back to a crew ship wouldn’t be so hard,” Hare said.