Jim Benson used his appearance on a panel at the ISDC on Friday afternoon to announce his company’s revised suborbital spaceship. Benson said that the new design came together after SpaceDev completed a five-month study of the viability of using the original Dream Chaser design—a lifting body based on the HL-20—for suborbital flights. The blunt shape of the spacecraft generated a lot of drag during ascent, he said, requiring the use of an external booster to get the vehicle into space. Also, the found that it was impossible to have the vehicle land back its launch site without subjecting those inside to accelerations as high as 7 Gs. The g forces could be lowered, he said, but it would require landing about 100 miles (160 km) downrange. “I had a couple of sleepless nights, thinking, ‘This just doesn’t feel quite right,’” he said.
As a result, they looked at alternative approaches, and settled on the new design after Hoot Gibson, the former astronaut that is Benson Space Company’s chief test pilot, suggested looking at bullet-shaped vehicles like the X-1, X-2, X-15, and T-38. That led to the design announced Friday, which takes off vertically using six of the hybrid rocket motors SpaceDev built for the SpaceShipOne flights, flies to a peak altitude of about 105 kilometers, and glides to a runway landing. Benson said peak accelerations will be less than that planned for SpsaceShipTwo, which will generate up to 6 Gs during reentry. Benson said later that the company hopes to achieve a two-hour turnaround time for the vehicle, with the changeout of the hybrid motors being the critical factor. The vehicle can carry six people, including one pilot.
The redesign cost the company a couple of months, Benson said, but will result in something that is “even simpler to fabricate, less expensive, and faster” to develop, allowing the company to make up the lost time. Benson is working now on raising a round of funding to allow development of the new vehicle (which also goes by the “Dream Chaser” moniker for now, although he said they are considering a new name for it). He said he is talking with five key investors, anyone of whom could fund the whole project. If he is able to secure that money in the next few months, he believes that they can begin commercial flights in 2009, ahead of Virgin Galactic, Rocketplane, and others.