Sierra Nevada Corp. says it’s working with the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs on an arrangement that would give countries around the world the opportunity to fly payloads into orbit and back on the company’s Dream Chaser space plane.
“Beyond the commerce, this represents the global reason and the holistic reason why space is important to us,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC’s Space Systems business area, told GeekWire today.
A memorandum of understanding with the U.N. office, known by the acronym UNOOSA, was signed last week, Sirangelo said. The pact is meant to lead to a detailed agreement under which UNOOSA and SNC would facilitate affordable access to space for U.N. member states.
SNC is currently developing an uncrewed cargo version of the Dream Chaser, which NASA could use to transfer cargo to and from the International Space Station starting as early as 2019. For those resupply flights, the winged spaceship would be launched into low Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and brought back down to a runway landing at the end of each mission.
At last week’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle, Sirangelo said a Dream Chaser prototype was on track to be delivered to NASA for atmospheric testing in August.
Sirangelo said the intent of the U.N. missions would not be to make deliveries to the ISS, but to fly payloads aboard the Dream Chaser in orbit for extended periods, for scientific research or engineering tests. “The vehicle itself can stay in low Earth orbit for a number of months,” he said.
The Dream Chaser could accommodate several dozen payloads from different countries on each shared mission. The initial missions would be uncrewed, but Sirangelo said “we can see a path to a crewed vehicle at some time.”
Sirangelo said SNC could launch the space plane from pads outside the United States, using rockets such as the European Ariane 5 or the Japanese H-2B. The plane could land on any suitable runway longer than 8,000 feet. “This is really an extension of the spaceport projects that we’ve been working on for a few years now,” Sirangelo explained.
UNOOSA is a Vienna-based U.N. office that was created at the dawn of the Space Age to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space, and to assist developing countries with space science and technology. The arrangement with SNC appears to mark UNOOSA’s first involvement in facilitating launch services.
Traditionally, launch companies work directly with their customers, or with companies that manage payload logistics. “There’s nothing to preclude that,” Sirangelo said, “but in this case, what we’re trying to do is reach a global audience.”
SNC and UNOOSA still have to resolve lots of details, including the cost for flying payloads, the system for arranging reservations and the time frame for starting service. There may also be issues related to U.S. export restrictions.
Sirangelo said he expected the plan to be fleshed out over the course of the next year. Further details are likely to be announced at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico this September, Sirangelo said.