Issue No. 112


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 112 | Apr 14, 2021

🚀 🌍 🛰

Still chasing the dream. Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) recently breathed new life into their crewed spaceplane project. Dream Chaser was originally conceptualized as a crewed spaceplane ¼ the size of the Shuttle, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. After being dropped from the program in favor of Crew Dragon and Starliner, Dream Chaser was re-envisioned as an autonomous cargo vehicle for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 program. Cargo Dream Chaser development has continued despite some COVID-related setbacks—its Demo-1 mission is now targeting launch “in 2022”. It should get its wings attached sometime this summer (here’s its look as of January). Both configurations of Dream Chaser feature a lifting body and 2,000 upgraded thermal protection system tiles (compared to the Shuttle’s 24,000+ tiles). While current development has focused on the cargo version, crewed Dream Chaser may soon see renewed life—SNC just announced plans for a commercial space station. The station is based on their 3-story-tall LIFE inflatable habitat modules, currently being ground-tested by NASA, and repurposed from their original Mars/Moon application for LEO commercialization. Both crew and cargo configurations of Dream Chaser feature strongly in plans for the station. Interestingly, SNC highlighted movie production as an economic driver for commercial space stations. Given that two movies are currently being planned for filming on the ISS, this could have some level of reality. (Related: other movies focus on finding ways to let their actors live in special-effects-budget-friendly artificial gravity settings).


One configuration of SNC’s modular LIFE-habitat-based commercial space station.


The Prepared. It’s an awesome (and free!) weekly newsletter about engineering, manufacturing, and infrastructure. We read it every week, and if you're curious about modern making, manufacturing, and complex industrial and infrastructure systems, then you should too.


Nuclear propulsion takes a step toward cislunar space. This week DARPA awarded Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) contracts as part of its DRACO program for the design of a reactor as well as two small awards for conceptual designs of spacecraft that the reactor would push round in cislunar space. NTP provides a high thrust-to-weight ratio like chemical rockets, but with roughly double their Isp (900s vs ~450s) by using the heat of a reactor to expel light fuels at high velocity. NASA believes this technology is important for future crewed deep space missions and that its use could decrease Mars transit times by 25%, and DARPA feels it is necessary for “space domain awareness in cislunar space”. Contracts for the next 18 months were awarded to General Atomics for the reactor design ($22M), as well as Blue Origin ($2.5M) and Lockheed Martin ($2.9M) for spacecraft concepts. This is a good start and shows continued commitment from US aerospace programs to a long-term endeavor that will require significantly more investment to make a reality.


A few SpaceX updates.

News in brief. Monday marked 60 years since Yuri Gagarin spent 88 minutes in orbit inside of Vostok 1 as the first human in space, and 40 years since the first launch of the Space Shuttle; the Biden Administration proposed a $24.7 billion budget for NASA for 2022, an increase of 6% over 2021, with increases to Earth science, human exploration, and space technology programs, but not enough for 2024 crewed Moon-landing timelines (extensive PDF); a Soyuz carried two Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei to the ISS—NASA used a seat purchased commercially from Axiom Space; OSIRIS-REx completed its last flyover of Bennu—it will start its two-year voyage back to Earth on May 10th; ABL Space Systems, developer of the yet-to-be-launched RS1 launch vehicle won a large “block-buy” contract from Lockheed Martin for as many as 58 launches—the RS1 can carry 1,350 kg to LEO, with a first launch attempt targeting 3rd quarter this year; a high-speed rotor spin test on Ingenuity ended with a command sequence software error, requiring a software update which will take until sometime next week; and, Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 successfully docked with Intelsat 10-02 in geosynchronous orbit, a first with an active satellite—MEV-2 will provide orbit maintenance for the low-on-fuel Intelsat for five years before moving on to a new mission.

Intelsat 10-02 in geosynchronous orbit with the Earth in the background. Captured from MEV-2’s perspective just before its final approach and capture.


Eric Wernquist’s short video “Wanderers” from 2014, reusing narration by Carl Sagan, is a loving ode to exploration and wanderlust. If you haven’t seen it, you should.


© 2020 The Orbital Index. All rights reserved.

Powered by Hydejack v8.4.0