SNC’s Dream Chaser Takes Step Forward to Commercial Cargo

SNC’s Dream Chaser Takes Step Forward to Commercial Cargo

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) conducted a successful free flight of its Dream Chaser spacecraft this weekend.  Resembling a very small space shuttle, SNC plans to use it to take cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) beginning as early as 2020 as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract. Saturday’s test was of a full scale version of the spacecraft that was dropped from a helicopter to descend and land on its own.

SNC released a video of the test and held a media teleconference this afternoon.

SNC’s Dream Chaser was one of three competitors for NASA’s “commercial crew” program, vying for NASA contracts to develop systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through public-private partnerships (PPPs).  NASA funded several companies, including SNC, through a succession of development activities in the first half of the decade, one of which was the Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCAP) program.

Commercial crew was a follow-on to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or “commercial cargo” program that led to the SpaceX and Orbital ATK uncrewed systems that resupply ISS today — Falcon 9/Dragon and Antares/Cygnus.  Orbital ATK’s most recent Cygnus launch took place yesterday.

Under these PPPs, the government and the private sector share development costs and NASA guarantees purchasing a certain amount of services, while the companies are expected to find other customers to make the business cases close.  During the development phase, NASA pays the companies after they meet specific milestones.  If they do not meet a milestone, they are not paid.

SNC was competing against Boeing and SpaceX for the commercial crew PPP program in the CCiCAP phase, but in 2014 NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to continue to the next phase, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP).  SNC challenged the award, but lost.

SNC then decided to focus on cargo instead of crew.  When NASA held a second competition (CRS2) for commercial cargo services in 2016, SNC won and was added as a third supplier.  NASA promised to purchase at least six cargo flights each from SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and SNC.

SNC will use uncrewed Dream Chaser vehicles to deliver and return cargo autonomously beginning as early as 2020.

The test on Saturday is a step in that direction, although it actually was the final paid milestone in the earlier agreement it had with NASA under CCiCAP.

Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems. Photo credit: SNC website.

The vehicle used on Saturday was the same one used in a series of previous Dream Chase tests where it made captive carry or drop tests.  The company is still analyzing the data from the most recent test, but SNC Corporate Vice President for Space Systems Mark Sirangelo said today that everything is looking good and there are no plans to fly this vehicle again.

Sirangelo compared the tests with this vehicle to those flown by NASA in 1977 of the space shuttle orbiter Enterprise.  Enterprise also was not designed to fly in space, but only for atmospheric tests.  Like the Enterprise test flights, this one took place at Edwards Air Force Base, CA and Sirangelo expressed gratitude to NASA and the Air Force for their assistance.  NASA Commercial Crew Program space act agreement partner manager Mike Lee called it “a significant achievement that successfully demonstrated the final phase of atmospheric flight that will occur after re-entry from an orbital mission.”

Steve Lindsey, a former NASA astronaut who flew on five space shuttle missions, is now SNC’s Vice President for space exploration systems.  At today’s media teleconference, he said that a number of upgrades were made to this vehicle for Saturday’s flight to certify systems for use on the orbital version. That includes thermal protection tiles, flight software, redundant navigation sensors, and guidance and control systems for reentry and landing.  He stressed that the vehicle’s flight was completely autonomous, not like a UAV where humans are controlling it.  Sirangelo noted that the flight profile included commands for the vehicle to turn left and then right, then return to the centerline during descent.

Dream Chaser will go through its Critical Design Review (CDR) next year. Dream Chaser is a lifting body whose design builds on work NASA did through the HL-20 program decades ago.  The test on Saturday will inform the final design.

The CRS2 contract with NASA is guaranteed for only six flights.  SNC is working to find other customers not only for cargo, but for using Dream Chaser as a space laboratory for 2-4 week periods and launching people into space.  The first launch of the laboratory version of the vehicle is expected in 2021, Sirangelo said, pointing out that the company has received an “overwhelming” response to its call for science proposals issued in September at the International Astronautical  Congress in Australia.  NASA is “the first client,” but SNC has direct or indirect agreements with over 20 space agencies and United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, he added.

Sirangelo said the company is planning to build two orbital vehicles at the moment and each is designed for at least 15 flights each with a turnaround time of 60 days.

SNC already has signed an agreement with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send the first Dream Chaser into orbit aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket.  He said, however, that Dream Chaser will be able to be launched on a variety of launch vehicles, not only Atlas V, which is due to be phased out in the early 2020s.  Dream Chaser also can land in many locations, not only at NASA facilities.

SNC is owned by Fatih and Eren Ozmen.  Fatih Ozmen was one of three witnesses on the “commercial” panel at the first meeting of the National Space Council last month. The other two companies were SpaceX and Blue Origin.

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