The Dream Chaser Story: Space Jets, Covert Spies and Dusty Barn Finds

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser “space utility vehicle” took its first step towards flight on Monday following a successful “captive carry” test. When the Dream Chaser does take its maiden flight, it will be the culmination of 35 years of preparation that was started by an Australian reconnaissance plane. The story that encompasses this 35-year wait is full of covert missions, scientific discoveries and even a dusty barn find.

In June 1982, an Australian reconnaissance plane was surveying an area of the Indian Ocean. During the flight, the crew spotted a Soviet ship recovering a short, squat aircraft from the water that appeared to be designed for spaceflight. Not having a space programme of their own, Australian authorities turned the photos over to the United States. After receiving the photos, NASA engineers at the Langley Research Center carved a scale model of the jet out of cherry wood. Del Freeman, an engineer who worked on the project explained that “Finally, we got enough information to build a model and we put it into [a wind] tunnel. When we tested it, we really figured out that we had something.”

A scale model of the HL-20 used for wind tunnel tests. The model was used to measure aerodynamic performance characteristics in the Langley Research Center wind tunnels.

Dubbed HL-20, it was imagined that it would be utilised as, among other things, a lifeboat for the International Space Station (ISS). However, like many projects around the end of the Cold War, the HL-20 never went past the design phase and was left to be forgotten in the back of a government-owned warehouse. In the early 2000s, though, the project got a new lease on life following Sierra Nevada Corporation visit to Langley. The private aeronautics company was looking for a space vehicle design and stumbled across the HL-20, one of the most extensively test spacecraft to never have flown.

Sierra Nevada renamed the HL-20 the Dream Chaser and touted it as a self-launching, self-flying, self-landing multi-purpose spacecraft. Not much longer than a Cessna, the Dream Chaser can carry a crew of 7 or a cargo of around 12,000 pounds and land on any commercial runway at least 10,000 feet long.

Following a successful test flight later this year, Sierra Nevada will begin preparations to for their first ISS supply mission in 2020. The company won the right to supply the Dream Chaser for these missions as part of the NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. The spacecraft will hitch a ride aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will ferry into space. Once there, it will extend its solar arrays and dock with ISS. Following the completion of its mission, it will disembark and land safely horizontal at a nearby airstrip.

Although NASA have not contracted Sierra Nevada to utilise the Dream Chaser to ferry astronauts, the company hopes that the agency or another commercial outfit will in the near future.

Image source: NASA

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.