Sierra Nevada Corp. gears up to build a cargo spaceship – and a space station

Dream ChaserDream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser atmospheric test vehicle is on display at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sierra Nevada Corp. is showing off a prototype of its Dream Chaser space plane, but its focus is quickly shifting to building the real thing to send to orbit.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s an orbital power plant and space habitat to work on as well.

SNC executives provided what they promised would be a series of status reports today here at the 34th Space Symposium, in front of the engineering test vehicle for the Dream Chaser program.

The 30-foot-long, stubby-winged plane was built for atmospheric tests, to check the aerodynamics and flight control systems for an autonomous mini-space shuttle that will be capable of ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station starting in 2020.

The plane flew a “completely successful” test last November after being dropped from a helicopter hovering at a height of 12,000 feet, SNC’s Mark Sirangelo told reporters. The flight profile was similar to that used for the space shuttle Enterprise’s atmospheric tests during the early days of NASA’s shuttle program, but without a pilot at the controls.

“This is our Enterprise,” said Sirangelo, who heads the company’s Space Systems business area.

After its star turn at the Space Symposium, the test vehicle will be transported to SNC’s production facility in Louisville, Colo., and put in “flyable storage,” said Steve Lindsey, a former NASA astronaut who now serves as SNC’s vice president of space exploration systems.

It’s not expected to fly again unless and until SNC revives its plans to build a crew-capable version of the Dream Chaser. But thanks to the data acquired during its flight tests, SNC is moving ahead with development of the still-uncrewed but space-worthy Dream Chaser.

Lindsey said plans for the orbital vehicle has gone through critical design review, and the first parts of the primary structure are due to arrive in Louisville next month. “We’re going into production now,” he said.

Once it’s assembled, the plane will be tested on the ground, in vacuum chambers and on runways. If all proceeds according to plan, it will go all the way to the space station on its first launch, scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2020 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Once it makes its delivery, the reusable plane can fly itself back to a runway landing.

Sirangelo declined to specify how much SNC has spent on the Dream Chaser over the past 13-plus years, except to say that it’s a “significant amount.”

Mark SirangeloMark Sirangelo
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Mark Sirangelo talks to reporters with the Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle serving as a backdrop. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corp. are all due to share in a NASA cargo resupply program that could dole out as much as $14 billion in the 2019-2024 time frame. Each carrier is guaranteed at least six flight orders, but NASA hasn’t said how the payments will break down on a per-flight basis.

SNC is also in the running to provide two key pieces of hardware for NASA’s future space exploration program, which focuses on the in-space construction of a Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway in the mid-2020s.

The company won separate NextSTEP-2 contracts to build a ground-based prototype for the first piece of the gateway, known as the power and propulsion element, as well as for an expandable deep-space habitat that could be attached to the complex.

“When we start building this [Dream Chaser] vehicle up in Louisville, at the same time we’re actually building a full-sized prototype of the lunar gateway, which’ll be built right next to it,” Lindsey said. “So it’ll be a really cool place to come visit.”

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An artist’s conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.’s expandable deep-space habitat in orbit around the moon. (SNC Illustration)

NASA awarded the contracts as part of a competitive program that involves other companies as well, and it’ll be a while before the agency awards contracts for the actual space hardware. The power and propulsion element is currently due for launch in 2022.

It’s not certain that SNC will be providing modules for the space gateway, but for now, Sirangelo is reveling in the moment. He noted that 2018 marks the golden anniversary of the theatrical release of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“In a weird sort of way, for those of us who’ve seen that movie, if you remember, there was a commercial space plane going to a commercial space station in that movie,” Sirangelo said.

“And here we are — as a company that, a number of years ago, most people didn’t know — we are now building a commercial space plane, and a commercial space station. The two are going to be together,” he said. “How cool is that, to be able to say that you can do both of those in your lifetime?”

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