The Dream Chaser is the most recent space shuttle that won a contract with NASA to make cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. It’s being developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, one of the new kids in the race to make commercial space flight more accessible. I It turns out that much of the magic is being developed right in Kendall Square.
When it first takes off, the Dream Chaser acts like a space shuttle, looks like a space shuttle, and is boosted into space in a rocket—very standard space shuttle moves. That’s where the similarities end. Once it’s in space, software takes over-- software developed at the Draper Laboratory in Kendall Square.
Seamus Tuohy, director of space systems, heads the team that developed the smarts of the Dream Chaser, and says the technology can guide the vehicle through its entire mission.
“Each mission phase has some software that will tell it where it is, tell it where it needs to go, and control the spacecraft to get there.” Tuohy said. “And after we deliver the cargo, we then control the vehicle on its reentry into the earth’s atmosphere and its subsequent landing on a runway at Kennedy Space Center.”
That’s the kicker. Unlike the SpaceX Dragon, which currently delivers cargo to the International Space Station—and lands by splashing down into the Pacific Ocean, the Dream Chaser starts acting like an ordinary plane once its back in the Earth’s atmosphere.
“It lands like an aircraft. It can land on the runway that any commercial aircraft can land on. So, the operations that we are trying to get to is basically like an aircraft operation.” Tuohy said.
That matters because timing is crucial when bringing back valuable science experiments from the ISS. And since the Dream Chaser doesn’t use a lot of propulsion and fuel in its return, it’s not toxic to humans, which means right after landing, everything can be immediately put into the lab. All of this is because of sophisticated aerospace engineering—but can a computer really land that much better than a human?
Yes, according to Alan Campbell, Draper’s Simulation Task Leader for the Dream Chaser project. Campbell kindly walks me through the simulation of the manned landing version—complete with a video game joystick and footpedal brakes. And who better to challenge a machine than a reporter with zero flight experience and limited gaming chops?
There are three computer monitors—one image represent the view from the cockpit and even though it’s a simulation, the view of the Armstrong Air Force base from an elevation of 12,500 feet still looks daunting.
“Now that you’ve gotten to see what our Guidance Control Software can do, are you ready to give it a shot?” Campbell asked.
There is no other option, so as soon as Campbell counts down “3-2-1”, I’m suddenly operating a space plane that has reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Take that green circle and move it toward the red diamond.” Campbell said.
It sounds simple enough and I’m doing fine-- until it’s time to land.
Campbell offered a good tip. “The secret to all of this is the softest touch.”
The advice comes in too late as I lose control of my target, pull the joystick back too far, sending the Dream Chaser back up into the air. I then overcompensate by pitching it forward too much, resulting in a crash landing so disastrous, the software can’t even compute how far under ground I’ve crashed.
Campbell is quick to offer consolation—“I’ve only seen one person successfully land this fully manual. It was me—but to be fair, I’ve tried thousands and thousands of times.” Campbell said.