When space shuttle Atlantis touched down in July 2011, it brought to a close the 30-year history of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program. What was intended to be a reusable spacecraft for building a U.S. owned space station morphed into a three-shuttle program whose primary mission was to shuttle the parts and personnel required to build the International Space Station (ISS). That it did very well.
Unfortunately, both the space shuttle and ISS projects ballooned into costly behemoths that were hard to justify. Thus, the sunset of the Space Shuttle Program was not unexpected. Yet closing the book on the space shuttle did not close the book on reusable spacecraft that could be used as the aerospace equivalent of moving vans. Now on the horizon awaits the space shuttle’s replacement.
Introducing the Dream Chaser
So, what is set to replace the venerated space shuttle? It is an unmanned, reusable spacecraft known as the Dream Chaser. The Dream Chaser Commercial Resupply Service 2 is owned and operated by Sierra Nevada Corp. The company expects the first launch of its revolutionary spacecraft sometime in late 2020. In the meantime, they are working with NASA and a software developer out of Newport News, Virginia to get the Dream Chaser ready.
Sierra Nevada Corp. is making use of a Collier Research software tool to test and modify the Dream Chaser’s design. Known as HyperSizer, the tool enables engineers to learn critical information about the spacecraft’s strength, weight, durability, etc. The data generated by HyperSizer testing is expected to significantly reduce the cost of production once Sierra Nevada starts building the first commercially viable Dream Chaser.
Computer modeling and testing is critical given the requirements of space travel. And seeing as how Sierra Nevada will be building its space vehicle largely out of composite materials, they need as much testing information as possible.
Dream Chaser will be largely made of durable, reliable composite materials that can withstand the punishment of space travel. The materials will have to be able to stand up to dangerous re-entry, as well. All the while, the vehicle has to be light enough to allow for significant payload in order to make operation economically viable.
The New Space Race
Sierra Nevada Corp. is not the only company leaning heavily on composite materials for space vehicles. SpaceX, the private space travel company founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, routinely launches satellites into space using cutting edge rockets made largely of composites. The much-hyped launch of a Tesla car into space earlier this year was made possible by a composite capsule that provided the payload space.
Indeed, if there is a new space race it is between private companies looking to capitalize on the need for reliable space transport. While Sierra Nevada is focusing on building a reusable vehicle for supplying the International Space Station, SpaceX is working hard on coming up with a vehicle they believe will eventually make colonizing Mars a reality.
There is no doubt that private space transport is an expensive business. So to make it worthwhile, payloads have to be significant. Utah’s Rock West Composites says that materials like carbon fiber are ideal for such applications. Carbon fiber is stronger and tougher than both steel and aluminum, but at a fraction of the weight cost. It is no surprise that both Sierra Nevada and SpaceX use copious amounts of carbon fiber to make their vehicles.
The age of the space shuttle has come and gone. In its wake are newer, more innovative space vehicles that are pushing the interstellar envelope further than ever before.