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Spaceship Landing Zone

Huntsville antes up $200,000 on chance to become a Dream Chaser landing option.

Dream Chaser’s big selling point: You can land, pop the hatch and walk away.

Dream Chaser’s big selling point: You can land, pop the hatch and walk away.

Photo courtesy of NASA and Sierra Nevada Corp.

For decades, space vehicles have been designed and built in Alabama, but launched and landed elsewhere, usually in Florida or California. But a new generation of spacecraft, under development by private industry, will have the ability to make runway landings — and some of those landings could happen in Alabama’s Rocket City. 

In June, Huntsville took the first steps toward being part of that dream. 

A coalition of local leaders kicked off preliminary feasibility studies to see whether a space vehicle could land at the Huntsville International Airport. Specifically, the feasibility studies will consider landing Sierra Nevada Corp.’s (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft at the airport. 

The Dream Chaser is a space utility vehicle capable of multiple types of space missions. It is able to flexibly operate as an independent science platform, logistics enabler or orbital servicing vehicle and can carry a crew of between two and seven. SNC is currently building the vehicle to compete for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract to supply cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), but the company also plans to operate the vehicle on other missions for a variety of U.S. and international customers. 

Dream Chaser’s operation is similar to the Space Shuttle, in that it launches vertically atop a rocket and lands horizontally on a runway. However, the Dream Chaser is the only reusable, lifting-body spacecraft that is capable of landing on a commercial runway, anywhere in the world. The start date for NASA missions, which will land at Kennedy, will be late 2018 or early 2019. The first commercial missions, which would land in other cities, would be in 2020, according to John Roth, vice president of business development for SNC in the Nevada firm’s Colorado space systems office.

Huntsville hopes to be one of those cities.

“The Dream Chaser landing in Huntsville will further illuminate Huntsville’s role as a global leader in commercial space, and it will open up a new segment of the space economy for our community,” says Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville. “Huntsville leads the nation for space propulsion. What is lesser known is our role in space science and space operations. This would highlight both of those critical fields in the space industry.”

Understanding the study

Sierra Nevada and the cities of Huntsville and Madison are partnering with Teledyne Brown Engineering to complete the feasibility studies assessing the airport. The preliminary studies will assess environmental factors such as airspace, traffic flow and potential impacts to commercial air traffic.

Significantly smaller than the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is able to land on a 10,000-foot runway, which is standard for most commercial airports that can accommodate a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 class aircraft. Without propulsion, the Dream Chaser spacecraft must be transported from landing site to launch site using standard cargo aircraft, which an airport must have available.

While Huntsville has the required 10,000-foot runway, part of the study will consider the runway material. “We did all the testing on a concrete runway, and Huntsville has asphalt,” says Roth. “They need to make sure it’s compatible with our skid.”

In addition to ensuring that the airport meets Dream Chaser requirements, the study will look at a variety of environmental impacts, Roth says. “You have to make sure you can land the vehicle and clear the air space,” he says. “You have to figure out the impact of how to bring something from outer space back into the atmosphere.”

Huntsville isn’t the only city studying its airport capabilities and considering becoming a landing site for the Dream Chaser, but it’s not a competition. “We would like to have a variety of landing locations, not just in the United States but in other countries around the world,” Roth says. “The Dream Chaser will be the first space vehicle with runway landing, so it can take the space program for the first time to other states and countries.” 

Although the spacecraft won’t be ready to land at a commercial airport for several years, SNC is helping Huntsville and other cities study landing feasibility because the process is new and lengthy. 

“It’s helpful for us for cities to be considering the possibility of becoming landing sites,” Roth says. “The space program has always just been NASA, but this is the first time that regulatory agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration will have to deal with how to land a spacecraft at an airport. We’re giving our own money to support Huntsville’s study because it’s helpful to us. But it’s a long process; it can take one to two years to get a re-entry license from FAA, which is required for landing a vehicle that must re-enter the atmosphere from outer space.”

Landing a boon for Huntsville

For Huntsville and the Madison County area, spending $200,000 to study the potential of landing the Dream Chaser is a sound investment because becoming a landing site could be an economic development coup. There has been tremendous growth in interest in the commercial applications of space, such as pharmaceutical companies and manufacturing companies using research performed in space, Roth says. 

“For Huntsville, Madison and Madison County, the study is an investment in an emerging market,” says Lucia Cape, senior vice president for economic development at the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County. “Our assets and expertise in payload design, development, integration, operations and processing for federal and research customers are easily transferrable to commercial customers. The proximity to labs and facilities within minutes of landing and access to an experienced workforce make a compelling case for Huntsville International Airport as a landing site.”

Numerous industries are using commercial space applications, and as space travel becomes more commercial, entrepreneurial companies are expected to develop around space vehicle landing sites — and Huntsville is already home to much of that space industry infrastructure. The Dream Chaser’s use of non-toxic propellants and an innovative concept of operations allows immediate access to payloads and crew upon landing.

“Huntsville, Madison and Madison County view the Dream Chaser as growth potential for our economy,” says Battle. “Becoming a landing site for the Dream Chaser is something that could pay dividends for years to come. Imagine the draw for new industries that would be able to perform research on a scientific payload the minute it comes off the spacecraft. Consider the possibilities for our existing companies to work on space operations, or imagine the tourism generated by visitors coming to Huntsville to see a spaceship land. There are many possibilities out there.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.

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