Once upon a time, private spaceflight seemed like the stuff of science fiction. However, that changed in the early 1980s, which was when Arianespace became the first private company to start offering launch services. Still, it is essential to note that private spaceflight received a huge boost with the turn of the millennium. This can be seen in how private companies started drawing up plans for private space vehicles in the 2000s, thus enabling them to start launching those private space vehicles in the 2010s. Nowadays, there is market competition in the space industry coming from both private space vehicles that are already being used and private space vehicles that are still being made. One excellent example of the latter is Sierra Space's Dream Chaser.
What To Know
Dream Chaser is known to have been based on a NASA concept for a spaceplane called the HL-20 Personnel Launch System. Said concept was created in a time of enormous interest in routine space access. As a result, the HL-20 Personnel Launch System was supposed to achieve three aims. One, it was supposed to be cheaper to operate than the alternatives. Two, it was supposed to be safer to use than the alternatives. Three, there was interest in giving it the ability to land on conventional runways. The HL-20 Personnel Launch System never managed to make it beyond the stage of being a concept. Still, its influence can be seen in how Dream Chaser is a lifting-body spaceplane.
Robb Report says that there are two versions of Dream Chaser being made by Sierra Space at the moment. Originally, it was supposed to be a crewed spacecraft capable of carrying three to seven human passengers. That changed in 2013 when Dream Chaser skidded upon the runway because it failed to deploy its landing gear during a test. Since then, Sierra Space has been focused on a cargo version that is supposed to start running missions in 2023. It is important to note that the company hasn't given up on the crewed version. That Dream Chaser is supposed to be ready by 2025.
What Role Will the Dream Chaser Play?
Sierra Space has been involved in these events for more than a decade. After all, it received $20 million in seed money for Dream Chaser from the first phase of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. A total of $50 million was handed out in that phase, so it should come as no surprise to learn that Sierra Space received the lion's share of that money. Later, the company received another $212.5 million from NASA for the same purpose in 2012.
Despite this, Sierra Space wasn't chosen for NASA's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract in 2014. Instead, that went to Boeing and SpaceX. The explanation for NASA's choice was simple. Sierra Space had a less mature proposal than those of its competitors. That makes sense because it was working on a lifting-body spaceplane, which was a less-proven concept. Thanks to that, choosing Dreamer Chaser would have meant more challenges that needed to be overcome, thus making for more costs and more risks for an already challenging project. Presumably, the runway incident didn't help matters.
In any case, Sierra Space protested its non-selection. Unsurprisingly, that produced no meaningful results. Subsequently, Sierra Space took a more productive course of action by pivoting towards the cargo version of Dream Chaser. That enabled it to secure the Commercial Supply Services contract in 2016. Said contract guarantees at least six launches intended to resupply the International Space Station between 2019 and 2024, thus explaining the interest in getting the cargo version of Dream Chaser ready for use in 2023.
As for the crewed version of Dream Chaser, it seems safe to say that Sierra Space has plans for that as well. Certainly, it is interested in the institutions and infrastructure needed to open up private spaceflight to a wider range of people with a wider range of purposes in mind. This can be seen in how Sierra Space is set to open the first commercial human spaceflight center, which will be used to train not just commercial astronauts meant to staff the space industry but also experiential astronauts who are looking for a new kind of tourist experience. Undoubtedly, the crewed version of Dream Chaser will be positioned to take advantage of that growing interest.
What Can We Expect From the Space Industry in the Future?
It remains to be seen how successful Sierra Space's Dream Chaser will prove to be in the long run. Indeed, one can say much the same for the other companies that are involved in private spaceflight. Simply put, there is a real question regarding their path to profitability. It isn't uncommon for companies to take years and years before becoming profitable. Even so, companies are supposed to have at least some idea of how they are supposed to become profitable. Currently, that just isn't the case for the companies that are involved in private spaceflight. Yes, they often talk about space tourism, in which there is definite interest.
However, there is no guarantee that space tourism will become cheap enough for it to become profitable anytime soon. Meanwhile, other paths to profitability are even further out. To name an example, there is some interest in mining celestial objects. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done because the interested parties would need to be able to reach those celestial objects, set up mining operations, and then somehow send the products of those mining operations back to Earth. Every single one of those steps would be a colossal undertaking in its own right. Combined, that means that the mining of celestial objects is something for the far future rather than the near future.
Having said this, great enterprises aren't necessarily run just to make money. There are numerous people out there with an enormous interest in space and spaceflight, which is how these companies managed to get off of the ground in the first place. For the time being, their efforts have yielded much while still falling far short of what humanity has dreamed of. In the times to come, that could change because everything needs to be built up bit by bit. It wasn't that long ago when oceanic travel was a very dangerous thing. That was overcome but that couldn't have been overcome without people who were willing to commit resources to that effort in generation after generation.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson