Sierra Nevada Corp.'s reusable mini shuttle to launch on ULA's new rocket

Dream Chaser to launch on Vulcan Centaur from Cape Canaveral, land at KSC

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – In two years, the International Space Station will be receiving supplies from more than half-dozen different spacecraft, including Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser, a reusable spaceship that, to some, looks like a small-scale space shuttle.

Sierra Nevada Corp. officials revealed Wednesday that United Launch Alliance will launch Dream Chaser to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral using the Vulcan Centaur, which is still in development.

SNC, a Colorado-based company, was awarded a NASA six-mission resupply contract under the second round of the commercial cargo program and plans to begin shuttling cargo to the space station in 2021. Dream Chaser will land at Kennedy Space Center's Launch and Landing Facility.

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman will also continue to fly supplies to ISS.

When the black-and-white Dream Chaser begins shuttling up to 12,000 pounds of cargo and science experiments to the space station, the spaceplane will bring the number of commercial and international spacecraft capable of traveling to and from the ISS to a new level.

A rendering of Dream Chaser in flight. (Image: SNC)

Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon will begin carrying NASA astronauts possibly this year. A version of SNC's Dream Chaser was also built to carry crew. The company competed against SpaceX and Boeing for those commercial crew contracts. SNC still plans to launch crew on Dream Chaser either with commercial astronauts or NASA astronauts.

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus, Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and the Japanese cargo craft Kountori HTV will make seven spaceships traveling to and from the orbiting laboratory at different times.

Unlike the other spacecraft Dream Chaser will not dock at the space station but use the European International Berthing Docking Mechanism on the spaceplane to attach to the ISS.

A rendering of ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket (Image: ULA)

SNC CEO Faith Ozmen said Wednesday during a news conference that Dream Chaser will launch atop Vulcan Centaur, ULA’s next generation rocket. ULA is calling Vulcan a “more affordable” option compared to its predecessors Atlas V. The rocket’s main booster will be powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine and has six solid rocket boosters.

“Dream Chaser can launch from any conventional rocket so we had great options,” Ozmen said in a news release. “SNC selected ULA because of our strong collaboration on the Dream Chaser program, their proven safety record and on-time performance. This is bringing America’s spaceplane and America’s rocket together for best-of-breed innovation and exploration.”

Vulcan Centaur rocket is currently in production at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama.

Earlier this week, ULA said in a news release its new rocket is on track for the first launch in 2021.

According to the company's website, the Vulcan Centaur will pack a liftoff thrust punch up to 3.8 million pounds with the capability to carry 56,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, 33,000 pounds to a geo-transfer orbit and 16,000 pounds to geostationary orbit.

A marker on the Launch and Landing Facility indicates where the final space shuttle mission Atlantis stopped in 2011. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

A Dream Chaser Vulcan Centaur launch also means the return to space plane-style landings at the Kennedy Space Center Launch and Landing Facility.

The nearly 3-mile runway formerly hosted space shuttle landings until 2011 when the program ended. Florida's spaceport authority, Space Florida, took over the facility in 2015 and manages it as a private use airport but has been preparing to host commercial spacecraft landings like Dream Chaser.

At the end of last year, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the facility for plane-assisted rocket launches, such as Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket.

Space Florida has been working obtain reentry site operator licenses through the FAA, which is required when commercial spacecraft, like Dream Chaser, is returning from orbit. Space Florida officials said they expect to have the license before hosting Dream Chaser landings in 2021.

This story will be updated.