Huntsville prepares to welcome Dream Chaser

Huntsville International Airport has won FAA approval to land commercial spacecraft, specifically Sierra Space's Dream Chaser

Ryan Gardner, senior manager of airport operations at Huntsville International. Photo by Jeff White.

In May, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a license that made Huntsville International Airport (HSV) the first commercial service airport in the country authorized to operate as a reentry site for commercial spacecraft, specifically Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser, a reusable reentry vehicle capable of carrying payloads to and from low Earth orbit.

The long-awaited announcement marked one of the final steps of an initiative that began in 2014 when a group of public and private partners began a preliminary assessment to determine whether the airport was a contender as a commercial space reentry site. In addition to HSV and Sierra Space, the 2014 partnership consisted of representatives from Teledyne Brown Engineering; Reynolds, Smith and Hills (RS&H), an architecture, engineering and consulting firm based in Jacksonville, Florida; the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce; the cities of Huntsville and Madison; Madison County; the State of Alabama; the University of Alabama in Huntsville; and the Military Stability Foundation.

“We had all of these parts coming together, and they knew this project was going to be the wave of the future,” says Mary Swanstrom, public relations manager for the Huntsville International Airport. “And they wanted to have it here in the Rocket City, of course.”

Dream Chaser would land on the east runway 18L/36R, on the left of the aerial photo with the horizon facing south. Photo courtesy of Huntsville International Airport.

The following year, the coalition was able to announce that the first phase of its feasibility study — examining the spacecraft’s compatibility with the airport’s existing commercial runway and taxiway infrastructure — was a success. The Dream Chaser is able to land on runways that can accommodate a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320. Instead of a front wheel, however, the spacecraft uses a front skid. Morell Engineering of Athens conducted tests to determine whether the vehicle’s deployed front skid plate would damage the asphalt runway. Results concluded any potential damage would be negligible. The Dream Chaser will land on the airport’s east runway, 18L/36R.

The project’s next step was applying to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a specific Reentry Site Operator License, which is guided by strict requirements. “This process can, and did, take several years for the application, environmental review and subsequent approval,” says Ryan Gardner, senior manager of airport operations in Huntsville. Key issues considered by the FAA, notes Gardner, are public safety and environmental impact considerations, including air space, noise, historical preservation, wildlife, and waterways within the vehicle’s anticipated reentry trajectory.

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“Throughout the application process the prospective reentry site must demonstrate that a vehicle can safely land at the facility with an acceptable level of risk to the surrounding population,” Gardner explains. Additionally, the FAA is required to comply with the procedures and policies of the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws before issuing a license, and applicants must demonstrate they are in compliance with such laws as well. The airport submitted its reentry license application in November 2021, and the FAA released a draft of the environmental assessment for public review and comment. The FAA also held a public meeting to solicit comments on Dec. 9, 2021. The license, issued on May 13, 2022, will expire in 2027.

Currently, the airport is not pursuing permissions to land other spacecraft, which would require any additional reentry vehicle operators to obtain their own vehicle operator license from the FAA and would also require modification of the airport’s Reentry Site Operator License. “HSV welcomes other interested vehicle operators,” says Gardner. “However, if their operation differs significantly from what Dream Chaser provides, HSV’s Reentry Site Operator License would require amendment to include this new vehicle.”

The Sierra Space Dream Chaser comes in for a test landing. Photo courtesy of Sierra Space.

NASA has awarded Sierra Space six missions to resupply the International Space Station using uncrewed vehicles. The Dream Chaser vehicle will be carried as payload on the vertically-launched United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, made in Decatur. Since the Huntsville airport does not support vertical space vehicle launches, launch activities will take place at another site, such as Cape Canaveral.

According to proposed operations on the FAA website, the Dream Chaser’s reentry trajectories from orbit will be mission-specific and defined prior to launch. During the reentry sequence, the vehicle will have set timeframes to begin its descent into the Earth’s atmosphere in accordance with the designated reentry trajectory. The vehicle will reenter from the south on an ascending trajectory, with high atmospheric overflight of the southwestern U.S. or Central American countries, before landing at the Huntsville airport.

“Landing the Dream Chaser at Huntsville International Airport is one of the three pillars of our commercial space strategy,” says Lucia Cape, senior vice president of economic development for the Chamber. “The Payload Operations Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville has been the headquarters for all scientific payloads on the International Space Station since 2001. As NASA moves to decommission the ISS and encourage commercial on-orbit platforms, we want to continue Huntsville’s legacy of expertise.”

The Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce has been working with the Dream Chaser team since 2015 to garner support for the initiative, build market demand and promote Huntsville as a smart place for space science operations. The Chamber has sponsored two competitions with the European Space Agency to identify commercial applications for the vehicle and hosted three workshops for industry and academic partners. They have exhibited at the National Space Symposium and Space Tech Expo Europe. In March, the Chamber hosted a panel on research and development in microgravity at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin. 

Boosting the commercial possibilities of a Huntsville Dream Chaser landing site, the Huntsville team presented at the South by Southwest technology, film and music conference in Austin, Texas. Team members were, from left, Mark Ciotola, CEO of Sustain Space; Lucia Cape, senior vice president of economic development for the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber; John Roth, vice president of business development for Sierra Space; Olivia Holzhaus, founder and CEO of Rhodium Scientific; and Heath Mills, chief scientific officer at Rhodium Scientific.

“The panel at SXSW was a great way to explain the benefits of research and development in microgravity to a new audience,” says Cape. “With our partners at Rhodium Scientific, BIO Alabama and the Alabama Department of Commerce, we are working on an initiative that would provide proof of concept for products that could only be made in space. That’s what it will take to make a LEO economy a commercial reality.”

With the airport’s license to operate as a reentry site in hand and Sierra Space pursuing its Reentry Vehicle License, Dream Chaser’s first Huntsville landing is anticipated in 2023.

 “We’re ready,” says Swanstrom. “The airport is ready. We’ve done everything we needed to do.”

The next step, says Swanstrom, is putting a plan in place for the community and visitors to be able to watch these landings safely. “We’re excited, and we want to invite the public in.”

Katherine MacGilvray and Jeff White are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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