LAS CRUCES, NM – The Sierra Nevada Corp. announced on August 14 that it will use the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan launcher from the end of 2021 to ship the Dream Chaser cargo space to the International Space Station.
In a joint announcement by SNC Space Systems offices in a suburb of Denver, companies announced that SNC Vulcan had selected to perform six Dream Chaser missions for the ISS as part of NASA's 2016 award Launching SNC's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 version of the Vulcan with a five meter payload fairing, four solid fuel buckles and a twin-engine Centaur upper stage. With this configuration, Dream Chaser can deliver more than 5,400 kilograms of cargo to the ISS. Dream Chaser will dispose of approximately 3,1
Dream Chaser will be the "commercial debut" for Vulcan's mission in late 2021 with the rocket's second flight, said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA. "This is a very competitive launch market these days," he said, "and selecting SNC to fly this mission block with our Vulcan launcher is just a tremendous honor."
Originally planning to use ULA's existing atlas, SNC announced last year that it was considering options other than the Atlas 5 for future Dream Chaser missions, including the use of European or Japanese launchers.
The company chose the entire block of at least six CRS2 missions on the Vulcan. "This was the choice that I think is the best for this program, and I went to Eren and Fatih [Ozmen] to let them know that this is the best for this program," said John Curry, program director of Dream Chaser CRS2 SNC President and Chief Executive of SNC.
Eren Ozmen said the company had five different launch options, including European and Japanese vehicles – probably the Ariane 6 and the H3 – "and of course Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos," founders of SpaceX and Blue Origin. "They all have really good skills."
But she added, "ULA had a pretty significant advantage because we worked with ULA from the first day," a relationship dating back to plans under NASA's commercial occupation program, a manned version of the spacecraft on an atlas 5.
"Not to mention that we had a really low price," she added. However, companies refused to provide any financial details about the deal, including if SNC received a discount on flying at the second Vulcan launch, which ULA classifies as the vehicle's "certification flight". Bruno said the pricing information was "obviously proprietary".
The technical performance is another factor. "We spent a lot of time learning about this vehicle to make sure it was right," Curry said. "Safety and reliability were one of the main reasons we chose this team and this rocket." The companies said that if Vulcan experiences delays, there is an option to relocate launches to Atlas 5.
In addition to the six missions under the CRS2 contract, SNC is pursuing additional opportunities for Dream Chaser, which could fly with vehicles other than Vulcan. "We retain the ability to fly with other launch vehicles," said John Roth, vice president of strategy and business development at SNC. "We are launch vehicle agnostics."
The company will also not rule out the development of a manned version of the spacecraft that was discontinued almost five years ago when NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX for commercial occupation contracts instead of SNC. Curry noted that SNC maintained an earlier Space Act agreement for the development of the commercial crew, which extended the agency on an unfinanced basis to support potential versions of the crewed vehicle.
"We regularly meet with them to talk about our freight capability with the CRS2 vehicle and what the bridge to the crew vehicle would be if and when it came," he said. "It would not take so long to get from the cargo version to the crewed version."
Bruno, who from the beginning called himself a fan and "cheerleader" of Dream Chaser, was looking forward to starting the vehicle on Vulcan. "Eren and Fatih, you entrusted your baby to us, this amazing Dream Chaser vehicle," he said. "We will not let you down."