Dream Chaser was again delayed, raising questions about Vulcan – Ars Technica’s launch plans

Zoom in / A United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, without its payload, moves to the launch pad for tests March 9, 2023.

United Launch Alliance

The long-awaited debut of a winged alien plane will have to wait a little longer. NASA this week updated its internal schedule to show that Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spacecraft will now join the International Space Station no later than December 17, 2023.

Previously, Sierra Space had publicly aimed to launch Dream Chaser in August, aboard United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

In a statement to Ars, Sierra Space confirmed the delay. “Sierra Space’s plan is to complete the first launch of Dream Chaser by the end of the fourth quarter of this year,” the company said.

The latest delay will cause NASA mild concern, because it means that starting this summer, the American portion of the space station will rely on the Falcon 9 rocket alone for cargo supply missions. That’s because, in addition to flying SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon to the station, Northrop Grumman’s cargo-bearing Cygnus will launch on Falcon 9 later this year.

Northrop needed to find a replacement missile for the Cygnus after Russian-made engines for the Antares 230+ were no longer available in the aftermath of the Ukraine War. The Falcon 9 was the only US rocket available, and it would take two years to develop a replacement launch vehicle. So for Dream Chaser to start flying on Vulcan, if NASA astronauts want to have dinner, they’ll need to be DoorDashing on Falcon 9.

Vulcan needs payloads

The bigger issue raised by Dream Chaser’s latest delay — and perhaps not final — is the downstream effects on the long-awaited Vulcan rocket launch manifest.

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Here’s what we know for sure. United Launch Alliance intends to perform two “certification” missions for the big rocket so it can complete paperwork for the US Space Force and begin launching profitable missions for the Army. The company was supposed to start doing this last year and it’s starting to get a lot of pressure on Space Force officials. The United Launch Alliance’s most important customer is the US Army.

The nominal plan to launch these certifications entails flying the Astrobotic Lunar Lander on the cert.1 mission in May, and the Dreamchaser on cert.2 in August. During a conference call with reporters about a month ago, United Launch Alliance CEO Torey Bruno insisted that this schedule would allow Vulcan to get certified and fly its first national security mission “at the end of the year, in the fourth quarter.”

However, in this nominal plan, if Astrobotic flies in May, and Dream Chaser is not scheduled to fly in December, there will be no chance of a national security mission in 2023. After the second certification mission, there will be, at a minimum, a few Months of time for the government to analyze the data and declare Vulcan suitable for high-value and high-performance missions.

Jessica Ray, a spokeswoman for the United Launch Alliance, said the company remains committed to significant national security leadership in 2023.

“In our history and as part of our culture, we have always focused first and foremost on our customer’s mission and worked with all customers if there was a delay due to payload readiness,” she said. “We will remain as flexible as possible until Sierra Space is ready to fly. If our customers have difficulty meeting our plan, we have provisions for a mass simulation as an alternative and we are committed to ensuring that we complete US Space Force Vulcan certification prior to the first national security space mission in the fourth quarter of 2023.”

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So what will actually happen?

A reasonable guess is that the “Cert. 1” mission now scheduled for May 4, which is only six weeks from now, will be delayed. A source said that Astrobotic has completed engine testing on the Peregrine lunar lander and that the vehicle is almost ready for launch. Therefore, it now appears that the speed component for Vulcan’s first launch is the missile itself, rather than its payload.

United Launch Alliance has been conducting fuel loading tests on the rocket in recent weeks before conducting wet clothes training and a static fire test. on Twitter Thursday, Bruno said The first stage performed well during these tests, but they indicated that there might be some minor problems with the Centaur upper stage and ground systems. “There was some learning specific to the ground system. We’re fine-tuning some of the procedures and software to get it all into place (rehearsal).”

Considering the remaining work to complete your resume preparations. Mission one, the first launch is likely this summer, maybe in July or August. We can expect the United Launch Alliance to confidently schedule a launch after a static firing test, which it calls a “ready-to-fly launch”.

Ray, a company spokesperson, said that cert. Mission #2 will fly “just a few months later” after the first Vulcan mission. Maybe that means the fourth quarter of 2023. If Dream Chaser is really all set and ready, it will probably still be flying this second flight in December. If spaceplane development slips further, United Launch Alliance may actually launch a mass simulator.

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What seems highly unlikely is that Vulcan completes two certification flights this summer and fall, and is also able to launch a national security mission before the end of the year.

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