Sending supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) is something that has to happen on a regular basis so that the crew can carry out their work while orbiting Earth. As most missions last about six months, with three to six crew members aboard the ISS at any one time, several tonnes of food and supplies need to be sent to the ISS every few months.
Unlike us earthlings who can pop out to the local supermarket to stock up whenever we want to, the crew of ISS face unique challenges. In a recent book published by NASA, The International Space Station: Operating an Outpost in the New Frontier, chapter 14 ‘Vital Visiting Vehicles–Keeping the Remote Outpost Crewed and Operating’ states, ‘The logistics of keeping such the ISS running are complicated. In space, there are no grocery stores or home improvements stores. The “trash truck” only comes around every few months. Washers and dryers for clothing do not exist, and access to clean attire can take months. Much of the breathable air and drinkable water must be delivered. When supplies (e.g. bathroom tissue) are low, crew members cannot tap a few keys on the computer and wait for resupplies to arrive at the door. They call Mission Control and place their order, and then they wait.’
Now the wait may be quicker and easier. The Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has convinced NASA that they can make cargo deliveries to the ISS with their high-tech space plane called the Dream Chaser and approval has been given to the company to begin full production of the spacecraft.
Dream Chaser program director at SNC, John Curry, says ‘NASA’s approval of full production of the first Dream Chaser spacecraft is a major indication we are on the right path towards increasing vital science return for the industry.’
As reported in Space News, a version of the Dream Chaser was originally in the running for a new spacecraft to take crew to the ISS but NASA ultimately awarded the contracts to SpaceX and Boeing. The SNC tweaked its designs and presented a new version of the Dream Chaser for cargo resupply missions.
The new design of the spacecraft has foldable wings that allows it to be placed inside the payload compartment of a rocket. Once in space, it will dock with the ISS, transfer cargo, then fly back to Earth, jettisoning its cargo module which will be incinerated in the atmosphere as the plane itself flies back down for a runway landing.
The spacecraft will make its debut in late 2020.