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Meet the only company that still thinks a manned spacecraft should fly back to earth

In a hangar next to an enormous dry lake in the Mojave desert, a new spacecraft that could launch the next generation of space travel is about to begin the testing. What it sets it apart is it’s the only manned spacecraft currently being built that can actually fly back home.

What’s more, the Dream Chaser, as its corny name suggests, is that rare piece of technology that is both a leap forward and a throwback.

Three’s a crowd

With the end of the US space shuttle program in 2011, there has been no way for NASA to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station. To solve this problem, NASA began an investment program, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, that has awarded hundreds of millions of  dollars to three companies to develop a private-sector space craft: Aerospace giant Boeing, upstart SpaceX and the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

SNC is probably the least well-known of the three, but the privately held company brings a lot to the table: Its main business is supplying the high-tech components for spacecraft to the military and the government—everything from satellites to the technology that lowered the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars in 2012. It also made the rocket motor recently tested on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is designed for sub-orbital flight.

Boeing and SpaceX have are focused on space capsules, which return from space by dropping through the atmosphere and eventually parachuting to earth. SNC, on the other hand, has revived a design that has waited some fifty years for the making: a wingless plane called the lifting body.

Flying bathtubs in a dry lake

The SNC’s Dream Chaser, a seven-person vehicle intended as a sort of space taxi, came to California last week to undergo testing in NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force base. This is where the US trains its test pilots, aerospace companies test secret planes, and Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier in 1953.

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The dry lake at Edwards Airforce Base provides a useful runway for aircraft experiments.Google Maps

By 1963, aerospace engineers at Dryden were past the sound barrier and working on sending people to space. Putting a space craft into orbit is a two-part operation: A huge rocket gets the space craft out of earth’s gravity, and then the craft itself maneuvers through space.  Since there’s no atmosphere in space, space craft design is focused on how to enter and exit the atmosphere. If your space craft is a capsule, it re-enters the atmosphere like a ballistic missile, with lots of heat, before parachuting to earth.

The engineers at Dryden came up with something different, known as a lifting body: a tubby, blunt-nosed ship that enters with less heat, and once in the atmosphere, becomes a wingless plane that could land on a runway. The whole body is designed to provide lift, since wings don’t fare very well in reentry. The first lifting body was dragged above the lake by a souped-up Pontiac convertible. Here’s Yeager himself on the Rogers Dry Lake in 1963 with an early prototype, the M-2:

Yeager-Dryden

This craft would influence the development of NASA’s unbuilt HL-20, an early progenitor of the Dream Chaser, and made a cameo appearance at the Dryden unveiling:

The Dream Chaser next to its 1960s predecessor, the NASA M-2
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The Dream Chaser next to its 1960s predecessor, the NASA M-2.TIm Fernholz/Quartz

Why fly?

There’s a reason that the other spacecraft in the crew competition are capsules: They’re simple and effective.

But ask an astronaut what makes a spaceplane different, and their first answer may be about comfort. While capsules return to earth at around eight times earth’s gravity, the lifting body will only put its passengers through 1.5 g’s. That is a  big difference if you’ve just spent thirty days weightless, you’re rescuing a sick astronaut (the design is often touted as an emergency exit for space stations), or transporting delicate experiments.

Concern about comfort is doubly important if space is really to become a new frontier for business and tourism. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, mentioned that a malfunctioning chair in the Russian Soyuz space capsule that brought back the most recent crew of ISS astronauts (including celebrity Chris Hadfield) once exposed astronaut Kevin Ford to a spike of 22 times earth’s gravity. Ow.

And while the color-scheme may make it seem superficially similar to the shuttle, Steve Lindsey, a veteran of five space shuttle missions and SNC’s Director of Flight Operations, says designers have done a lot to make Dream Chaser cheaper, safer and more reusable. That means non-toxic fuels in its rocket thrusters, putting it on top of the launch rocket so it is exposed to less debris during take-off, and making stronger heat-shield tiles. The fact that it can fly is a safety multiplier, too, because the spacecraft can maneuver on its own in the event of an accident.

Resurrection as a business opportunity

The NASA lifting body was “one of the most tested and reviewed vehicles that had never flown,” according to SNC executive Mark Sirangelo, who in 1997 co-founded  a company called Space Development, Inc. to find business opportunities in space. The company saw NASA’s HL-20 design as a chance to get a leg up, and arranged to licence it as the basis for the Dream Chaser in 2006. Two years later, SpaceDev merged with SNC, and Sirangelo became the head of the company’s space systems division. By 2012, SNC had become one of three participants in NASA’s spacecraft project.

So far, it has passed three major testing milestones, unlocking some $95 million in public funding. The next steps at Dryden include dragging it around the lake to test its wheels and front strut, dangling it underneath a helicopter to learn about its aerodynamic properties, and then dropping it from said helicopter to see if an automatic pilot can land it. If these and further tests goes well—and the US government funds the commercial crew program’s budget—the company hopes to launch a manned mission into orbit by 2017.

And even absent further NASA support, the company, like its competitors, hopes to come up with alternative reveneue sources, from satellite repair to servicing space hotels.

This isn’t the first time that hopes have been raised about a ship like the Dream Chaser. But hopes springs eternal, especially for for space shuttle veterans at SNC like Lindsey. When that program was shuttered in 2011, he thought he’d “absolutely” never pilot a spacecraft again. But now, when the Dream Chaser begins manned testing, he says: “I’ll be flying it.”

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