Wannabe space station supplier Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has selected ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket to launch its Dream Chaser freighter in 2021.
Dream Chaser is a fan favourite, being a lifting body-based spacecraft that can glide to a runway and land in a manner reminiscent of the old NASA Space Shuttles.
Like SNC's Dream Chaser, ULA's Vulcan has yet to launch, with the first lift-off for the new rocket tentatively scheduled in 2021. As with some Atlas V variants, it will feature strap-on solid rocket boosters to lift heavy payloads. Unlike the Atlas, however, the first stage will be powered by two of Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin BE-4 engines.
The BE-4, seven of which will power the reusable New Glenn booster, has also yet to see action outside of a test stand.
Of course, the Dream Chaser could launch on any conventional rocket so the selection of one that has yet to make its first flight is brave.
Dream Chaser was famously intended as a vehicle to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station and bears a distinct resemblance to NASA's HL-20 concept. Back then, the plan was to stick it on top of a ULA stack so perhaps last night's announcement was a little less surprising.
Sadly for SNC, in 2013 the Dream Chaser crashed following its first free flight after being dropped from a helicopter. One of the main landing gears failed to deploy and the vehicle swerved off the runway. While relatively minor damage was sustained, and the crew compartment remained intact, NASA opted not to proceed with the design and instead went with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon.
In 2016, NASA added SNC to the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) for the International Space Station, joining SpaceX and the then Orbital ATK in ferrying cargo to the ISS. Unlike the Cygnus but like the Dragon, the Dream Chaser will be able to bring substantial amounts of gear down to Earth, plugging a gaping hole left flapping in the space programme since the epic down-mass capabilities of the Space Shuttle were lost.
Unlike the splashdown of the Dragon capsule, the Dream Chaser's relatively gentle runway landing means boffins should be able to get access to the returned cargo within minutes of touchdown. And to further delight Shuttle-huggers, those landings are planned to be at the old Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.
CRS-2 calls for six missions between 2019 and 2024, and SNC has passed milestones confirming that there is a good chance the thing might actually make it off the ground. The team had originally selected an Atlas V for the initial missions starting in 2020, but a slip to 2021 means the Vulcan should be available.
And 2013's wobble? The company conducted a successful free flight and autonomous landing in 2017. ®