FAA Issues Draft Environmental Assessment Regarding Sierra Space’s Plan to Land Dream Chaser at Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida

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On Tuesday, the FAA released a draft Environmental Assessment to the public regarding a proposal by Sierra Space to land its Dream Chaser spaceplane at the Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF, in Florida. Completion of the assessment is necessary for the proposal to be approved, and a public comment period lasting through January 24 will allow stakeholders to give provide feedback, after which the FAA may revise the draft and then issue either a Finding of No Significant Impact or a Notice of Intent to prepare a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

Dream Chaser is Sierra Space’s fully reusable spaceplane, capable of autonomously traveling to low Earth orbit. Although it is best known for delivering supplies to the International Space Station, Blue Origin selected it last October to fly crew and cargo to its planned private space Station — Orbital Reef.

The new Proposal would grant Sierra Space a Vehicle Operator License and permit Dream Chaser to perform up to 14 reentry operations at the SLF during the next five years. That potentially includes one landing in 2022, two in 2023, three in 2024, and four in 2025 and 2026.

The spaceplane would lift off aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket from a different site in Cape Canaveral. Upon completing its mission, it would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere over Central America and fly in through south Florida, spending just 30 seconds outside Cape Canaveral restricted airspace below 60,000 feet. Landing at the SLF would occur two and a half to three minutes later.

Sierra Space plans to dispose of materials from the ISS over the open ocean via a cargo module that would separate from Dream Chaser and burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry. Anything that survives would land in a remote part of the Pacific.

According to the draft Environmental Assessment, Dream Chaser will produce a sonic boom during reentry, which it describes as “similar in magnitude to a clap of thunder.” This could affect local residents of Brevard and Volusia counties, though the FAA says the noise would not adversely impact land use, building structures and occupational health and safety. The SLF would also experience airspace closures resulting in temporarily grounded aircraft and rerouted flights.

Tuesday’s announcement comes just after the FAA held a virtual public meeting on December 9 to discuss a different proposal by Sierra Space, this one to land Dream Chaser at the Huntsville International Airport. In that case, the spaceplane would also take off from Cape Canaveral but land in Huntsville, with up to eight reentries planned over five years starting in 2023.

At least one Huntsville resident opposed the proposal, arguing that sonic booms and toxic propellants could cause environmental damage, despite assurances to the contrary by the FAA.

In the month before a decision is made on the draft Environmental Assessment for the SLF reentry proposal, the FAA does not currently intend to hold a virtual meeting for public comment, but individuals can submit feedback through email or by letter.

If Sierra Space’s Vehicle Operator License is approved, it will remain valid for five years, at which time it may be renewed. We will keep you up to date on any further announcements.

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