The Pentagon now has access to a mini space shuttle
- The US military has signed a joint agreement with the manufacturer of the Dream Chaser shuttle.
- The two parties will jointly develop the Dream Chaser to transport military personnel and cargo.
- Cargo delivered to space is a new priority for the Pentagon, which wants to exploit the gains made by the commercial space industry.
The Pentagon has signed an agreement with Sierra Space, developer of the Dream Chaser shuttle, to develop the glider-like spacecraft for military transport missions. The goal is to develop a craft capable of transporting people or goods anywhere on Earth – or to certain places in space – in three hours. Although the Dream Chaser is limited in the amount of cargo it can carry, the procedures and tactics developed by both sides will likely become the basis of military space transportation for decades to come.
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Sierra Space, a division of defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corp. based in Louisville, Colorado, made an announcement about the partnership earlier this month on its website. “The two parties will collaboratively explore space transportation as a new mode of point-to-point global ground delivery of materials and personnel, as an alternative and complement to traditional air, ground and surface modes,” the company wrote. The agreement also covers the evaluation of Sierra Space’s new space glider vehicle, Dream Chaser, for use by the Department of Defense.
Dream Chaser is a crewed/uncrewed space plane in the mold of the space shuttle. Dream Chaser is based on NASA HL-20 lift-body spaceplane concept, which in turn is based on the former Soviet Union’s BOR-4 spaceplane. All three concepts involve a shuttle-like craft with a flattened body and upturned wingtips. Dream Chaser is designed to ride atop a rocket in space and then join a space station in low Earth orbit or hover to an airstrip on Earth.
The current Dream Chaser is unmanned and, with the aid of the Shooting Star disposable cargo module, can carry up to 12,000 pounds of cargo into space. Sierra Nevada has a contract with NASA to fly seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, starting in 2023. Dream Chaser is human-rated, which means it’s designed to be tough enough to carry humans around the Earth. space. A future manned version will be able to carry up to seven people.
The Pentagon has been quick to exploit the benefits of the commercial space industry. Although the military has investigated the movement of people and equipment by spacecraft for over half a century, the process has so far proven unworkable. Not only do the various competing companies lead to faster and more responsive launches, they also reduce the cost per pound of putting humans and goods into orbit.
If the Dream Chaser really can carry out military missions to transport goods (and at one point people) to any place on the planet in three hours, it is much faster than military sea transport, which could take weeks, or more than 15 hours. a military transport aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III to reach the four corners of the globe.
Dream Chaser is only a quarter of the size of the original Space Shuttle, and its relatively small cargo makes it impossible to transport military personnel and military cargo under all but the most extraordinary circumstances. The real value of the Pentagon/Sierra Nevada deal is that the two sides will determine how larger, more powerful spacecraft will work in principle in the not-too-distant future. Once a rocket travels to a crisis zone and unloads badly needed munitions, weapons and human troops, how does it return? All of these things will have to be addressed if space becomes a mode of transportation for the US military.
Writer on defense and security issues, lives in San Francisco.