ESA and the German space agency DLR are showing a renewed interest in commercial human spaceflight, with the announcement of a cooperation agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation, US developers of the Dream Chaser orbital spaceplane. The agencies will study potential European technology contributions, both to the current Dream Chaser vehicle, and advanced derivative vehicles. Areas include the thermal protection system material, and ESA’s International Berthing Docking Mechanism, an advanced docking system designed for use on the International Space Station that would actively capture and seal the vehicle to the orbiting station.
“Today marks a special day for SNC,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “With the start of these new relationships with ESA and DLR we are able to continue to expand the Dream Chaser Space System globally. The combined strengths of our partner space agencies, industrial companies and education institutions will significantly advance space education, exploration and, for various missions such as microgravity science, spacecraft servicing, debris removal, and materials manufacturing, provide economic benefits to all partners and strengthen U.S. and international ties.”
First uncrewed launch of Dream Chaser is currently anticipated for 2016, with a manned launch in 2017.
The development of commercial orbital systems for crew launch under the NASA CCDev2 programme just got a lot more... complicated. There are reports that Virgin Galactic is teaming with *both* Orbital Sciences (on a new four-person lifting body design) and Sierra Nevada Corporation on their Dream Chaser spaceplane (something which I've raised as a possible collaboration before).
Dulles, Va.-based Orbital is teaming with Virgin Galactic of New Mexico on the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev 2) project. Virgin Galactic will market commercial rides on the spacecraft, conduct drop tests of the orbital space vehicle using its WhiteKnightTwo aircraft and offer transport services for the space vehicle, industry sources said. Although Orbital expects to launch and land the spacecraft at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in the event of an abort, WhiteKnightTwo would be used to ferry the spaceship between its landing location and the Cape.
Virgin is also expected to announce this week a separate CCDev 2 bid led by Sierra Nevada Corp., the big winner in NASA’s first round of Commercial Crew Development awards earlier this year. The Sparks, Nev.-based firm garnered $20 million in CCDev 1 funds to mature its Dream Chaser orbital spacecraft, a six-passenger lifting-body vehicle based on NASA’s HL-20 concept from the early 1990s that the company has been working on for several years.
Fox News reports on Virgin's ambitions beyond the suborbital passenger business, starting with orbital missions for NASA to the International Space Station, and moving forward:
"We'll start with suborbital flights into space, we're then dreaming about trying to move on to orbital, and dreaming about, you know, looking at maybe having hotels in space one day, dreaming about maybe having intercontinental flights," Branson said in a recent Virgin Galactic video. "And if you don't dream you don't achieve anything. We try to inspire our engineers and technicians to make dreams become realities."
More discussion of Virgin Galactic's plans to bid for NASA Commercial Crew Development funding in an article in Aviation Week:
“There’s about four companies that are seriously looking at [CCDev Phase 2],” Branson said in an interview with AVIATION WEEK. “Two of those companies we’re in discussions with about teaming up with. ... Over the next month, we’re going to make a decision as to whether to team up with one of those two companies or go it alone, but we plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years.”
Since Space Adventures has already linked up with Boeing for passenger launch on the CST-100 capsule, there is speculation that Virgin is talking to SpaceX, and to Sierra Nevada Corporation (builders of the Dreamchaser spaceplane). Virgin may also be looking at resuscitating the airlaunched concept designed by Scaled Composites for T/Space.