A spacecraft known as the Dream Chaser could someday land at Spaceport America.
Sierra Space, based in Colorado, signed an agreement with the Southern New Mexico spaceport to use its runway as a landing strip for the “low Earth orbit” Dream Chaser, which the company is still developing.
Under a NASA contract, an unmanned Dream Chaser is expected transport cargo to and from the International Space Station, beginning in 2023.
The company hopes to use the spaceplane for at least seven such missions as well as for other supply transports in space.
The spaceport’s airfield was built to accommodate horizontal takeoffs, so it can handle Dream Chaser’s horizontal landings, said spaceport Executive Director Scott McLaughlin, who added very few of the nation’s spaceports have this capability.
The remote, sparsely populated area that surrounds the facility reduces the chance of the spaceplane’s sonic booms disturbing many people, McLaughlin said.
But it will be a few years before Dream Chaser descends onto the spaceport, he said.
McLaughlin said providing a landing site for spacecraft reentering the Earth’s atmosphere requires a special license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which can take a while to obtain.
A key part of the agreement is for Sierra Space to help the spaceport overcome these regulatory hurdles.
“What we’re working on together is that license,” McLaughlin said.
A Sierra Space representative didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about the agreement or the company Wednesday.
Dream Chaser would be the first fixed-wing commercial plane to soar into space, according to the company’s website. That’s in contrast to the ones that make suborbital flights below the boundary of space, generally defined as 62 miles in altitude.
The company also touts the Dream Chaser making what’s considered a “gentle” 1.5 G-force landing.
The plan is for the Dream Chaser to be launched on a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama, and then land at Spaceport America, McLaughlin said. From there, the spaceplane could be hauled on a truck to Sierra Space’s headquarters near Denver.
The spaceport isn’t designed to handle rocket launches on the scale needed to carry Dream Chaser into orbit, McLaughlin said. So it will remain limited to landings for the foreseeable future, he said.
New Mexico’s relatively central location in the U.S. potentially puts the landing site closer to more of Sierra’s patrons than Florida or Alabama would, McLaughlin said.
That could help make it the company’s preferred site for landings, he added.
The venture, if it materializes, would move spaceport officials closer to fulfilling a dream they chase: Making the facility a profitable commercial aerospace hub.
The spaceport has yearly revenue of $10.6 million, 40 percent of which comes from the state’s general fund, McLaughlin said.
State and local officials want to see the spaceport bring in more tenants to benefit the regional economy — the chief reason they agreed to fund its construction and maintenance.
The state paid roughly two-thirds of the $200 million-plus in construction costs, and the rest was covered by a gross receipts tax approved by Sierra and Doña Ana counties.
Expanding the tenant mix has become more necessary with Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant, delaying the launch of commercial suborbital flights until 2023.
McLaughlin said Sierra Space plans to create two other versions of the Dream Chaser — one that will carry crews into space and another that could be used for a variety of purposes such as surveillance and product testing.
“They’re planning to have a fleet of those vehicles,” McLaughlin said. “I think we’re in a very good position to become one of their landing sites over the next several years.”