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Sierra Nevada Corporation resurrects plans for crewed Dream Chaser spaceplane

Updates on its blow-up space station while Bigelow threatens to burst NASA's bubble

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has unveiled plans for an enormous inflatable space station tended by cargo and crew carrying versions of its Dream Chaser spaceplane.

"There is no scalable space travel industry without a spaceplane," said SNC chair and owner Eren Ozmen.

That's handy, because with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is nearasdammit the last spaceplane standing. NASA, however, disagreed and selected Boeing's Calamity Capsule and SpaceX's Crew Dragon for transportation purposes to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The space agency did, however, pop SNC into the second round of ISS Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2), meaning the reusable cargo version of the spaceplane will see orbital action once assembly is complete (due this summer with launch expected late in 2022), but the crew version was not to be troubling the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

SNC's proposal for a space station as an alternative for the ageing ISS is the LIFE habitat: a 27-foot-long, three-storey inflatable module that launches on a conventional rocket and inflates once in orbit. A full-sized prototype is currently being transferred from Johnson Space Center in Texas to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The crewed version of the Dream Chaser has also been resurrected and is planned to be used to both "shuttle" private astronauts (we see what you did there, SNC) as well as "rescuing astronauts from space destinations and returning them to Earth via a safe and speedy runway landing."

Guess who's suing NASA ... for $1m?

Those looking at that blow-up space station with a flicker of recognition might remember the activities of Bigelow Aerospace, which has similar inflatable ambitions. While the company managed to get an inflatable module to the ISS, it has faced challenges in recent years. Its module, however, has far outlived its original two-year design life and is expected to remain attached for a good few more years.

The company filed a complaint [PDF] against NASA in Las Vegas on 25 March alleging the agency owed $1m over data that Bigelow reckons it has provided during a Long Duration Leak (LDL) Test.

The test of a prototype B330 module, Bigelow's much larger space habitat (with 330 cubic metres of internal volume), ran from December 2019 to August 2020. Despite some computer malfunctions during the test (the test was left going for an extra couple of months to make up for any data loss) Bigelow reckoned that since the start and end pressure "was essentially the same" it had done its job.

NASA disagreed and demanded all the raw data from the test, which the complaint alleged it is not entitled to until payment has been made. The agency, the complaint alleges, "has withheld, and continues to withhold, the payment of the Contract Amount to Bigelow Aerospace."

And so, although it has been a while since Bigelow launched any inflatables into space, it can still fire off the odd sueball or two. ®

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