After years of postponements, Sierra Nevada Corp. is planning to deliver a rebuilt test prototype of its Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle to NASA for testing in the August time frame, a company executive said today.
Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC Space Systems, also said the company has just satisfied the first milestone in its contract with NASA to develop the Dream Chaser as a cargo transport for the International Space Station.
Sirangelo provided an update on the Dream Chaser at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.
In January, NASA gave the nod to SNC as well as to SpaceX and Orbital ATK to service the station during the second phase of its Cargo Resupply Services program, also known as CRS-2. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Orbital’s Cygnus craft, SNC’s Dream Chaser has yet to fly.
SNC Space Systems’ facility in Louisville, Colo., is the development center for the winged craft, which looks like a scaled-down space shuttle. The project is just one line of business for Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp., which is a significant defense contractor and a key player in Turkey’s TRjet aircraft development project.
It’s been a long road for the Dream Chaser, which was adapted from a lifting-body concept that was considered by NASA in the 1990s.
In 2010, Sierra Nevada Corp. began receiving millions of dollars from NASA for early development of the Dream Chaser as a transport craft for astronauts. Three years later, the Dream Chaser prototype was damaged when its landing gear failed at the end of a gliding test at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. A year after that, SNC lost out to Boeing and SpaceX in a competition for funds to keep working on crew transports.
Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser project had to be put on hold.
“It was a devastating loss for us,” Sirangelo said. “Lots of people went away. We had to lay off people. It was very hard. … The 90 people who were left on this program came to me and said, ‘We’re not ready to hang it up. We want to try again.'”
Winning the cargo development contract opened the way to resume work on the Dream Chaser. Sirangelo said his “Dream Team” is now making good progress on the retooled prototype, which is designed for atmospheric testing rather than spaceflight. Sirangelo compared the craft to the shuttle Enterprise, which NASA built in the 1970s to test the aerodynamics for the space-ready shuttles that would follow.
“Our version of the shuttle Enterprise is about to be finished for its next phase of flight tests,” Sirangelo said. “Somewhere in the August time frame, it’s going to be shipped off to California, to the Armstrong [Flight Research] Center and to Edwards to be in Phase 2 of flight testing, which is going to be really fun and exciting.”
Sirangelo said lessons learned from the atmospheric flight tests will be applied to the development of the orbital test vehicle, which is now being outfitted in Colorado. That test vehicle, in turn, will blaze the trail for the spacecraft that will carry cargo for NASA under the CRS-2 contract.
“We are looking to be launching on time, which is about three years from now, in the second half of 2019,” Sirangelo said. “That contract will go well into the next decade, so we need lots of help. We’re going to be hiring lots of people. If any of you guys want to come out and work on the next space shuttle, I think it’s a pretty good time to do that.”
The Dream Chaser is designed to be launched into orbit on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and to glide back down to Earth for the return trip. Sirangelo said the craft should be able to land on any airstrip that can accommodate a Boeing 737 jet. Cargo from space could be unloaded within just a few hours. That rapid delivery capability is one of the Dream Chaser’s big selling points.
NASA’s contract calls for a minimum of six Dream Chaser cargo flights, which could translate to a billion dollars or more for SNC. Sirangelo said that he expected NASA to specify the number of flights by the end of the year, and that the number is “probably going to be a lot more” than six.