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Inside Sierra Nevada Corp’s space plans, from the reusable ‘Dream Chaser’ to inflatable habitats


An animation exhibits Dream Chaser and its Shooting Star cargo module in orbit round the Earth.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada Corporation is greatest often called a non-public aerospace and nationwide safety contractor – however the firm is investing closely in its space techniques division, particularly because it sees NASA and different firms constructing infrastructure in orbit.

“Our view of the future is a vibrant, commercial low Earth orbit economy,” Steve Lindsey, SNC’s senior vp of technique space techniques, informed CNBC. “We want to be the logistics and crew providers in that future, so we’re really playing the long game.”

While SNC to date has been concerned in a whole lot of exploration missions and extra, the crown jewel of its space portfolio is Dream Chaser: A reusable spacecraft that, in look resembling a miniaturized NASA Space Shuttle, is constructed to launch atop a conventional rocket and land on a runway like an airplane.

“We view the Dream Chaser as something that eventually in low Earth orbit will be providing transportation, logistics and crew for everybody,” Lindsey stated.

Dream Chaser will get prepared to launch

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser.

Source: NASA

In the coming yr or so forward, SNC is targeted on Dream Chaser’s first launch. The car SNC is constructing now could be optimized to carry cargo, quite than crew, and is beneath contract to fly provides and analysis to the International Space Station for NASA.

Lindsey has been engaged on SNC’s Dream Chaser program for almost a decade. While SNC had gained greater than $360 million in growth contracts from NASA beneath the aggressive Commercial Crew program, the company in 2014 ended up going with SpaceX and Boeing for additional contract awards. Despite the setback in creating a Dream Chaser as a crew car, SNC pivoted to focus the spacecraft on successful contracts beneath NASA’s second technology of Commercial Resupply Services program.

But SNC is constructing Dream Chaser to go far past the upcoming cargo missions.

“We see it as the future vehicle that will be flying for the next 30, 40 or more years,” Lindsey stated.

Installing Dream Chaser’s aeroshell in August 2020.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

The firm earlier this yr introduced the first Dream Chaser is called “Tenacity,” which Lindsey stated feels becoming amidst the challenges introduced on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“2020 has been somewhat difficult year for all of us, but we’re working through the challenges … and coming up with different ways of doing things to keep us on track,” Lindsey stated.

An animation exhibits a cross-section rendering of the room for cargo on Dream Chaser and its Shooting Star module.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

SNC has been ready to keep on schedule manufacturing the first Dream Chaser spacecraft, he famous, with the firm operating a number of shifts a day. SNC is constructing each Dream Chaser, which may carry 4,080 kilos of provides, and the “Shooting Star” cargo that goes with it, which may carry a further 11,000 kilos of cargo. One of the main meeting steps upcoming is to set up the wings on Dream Chaser, which Lindsey expects will occur early subsequent yr.

Both of the Dream Chaser wings.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Once Dream Chaser and Shooting Star are constructed, then SNC will transfer to acceptance testing. That’s the place SNC will bend and push the limits of the spacecraft’s construction, to replicate the intense bodily pressures of launching and reentering by the ambiance. Next, SNC will take each spacecraft to Plum Brook Station, a facility at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. There the car will likely be put in a thermal vacuum chamber and endure testing that simulates the atmosphere of space, together with vibration and acoustic testing.

The Shooting Star cargo module for Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corporation

From Plum Brook, Lindsey stated SNC will ship the two spacecraft to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the place it’ll undergo last assessments and processing earlier than launch.

SNC has confirmed “that the Dream Chaser structure is certified for at least 15 missions,” Lindsey stated. That’s key to the firm’s heavy funding in the spacecraft, as reuse will assist cut back its prices. Additionally, Lindsey famous that SNC is trying to additionally certify its thermal safety system for 15 missions. This a part of the spacecraft consists of about 2,000 tiles that shield the spacecraft throughout re-entry into the ambiance, when temperatures can attain greater than 3,000 levels Fahrenheit. Lindsey, who flew 5 Space Shuttle missions himself, famous that the Dream Chaser tiles “are much tougher than” the ones on NASA’s earlier spacecraft. Dream Chaser’s environmental management system will then assist preserve the temperature down to what Lindsey described as a “shirtsleeves” stage, vital for flying delicate cargo in addition to folks.

Dream Chaser additionally does not have any poisonous propellants on board. While some spacecraft use what are often called hypergolic propellants, which Lindsey stated would have been simpler, the firm prevented it “because we want to be able to land anywhere in the world that a 737 aircraft can and process the vehicle without any special equipment.”

The interactive app the firm constructed to present case Dream Chaser and its capabilities.

CNBC | Michael Sheetz

The crew model of Dream Chaser is designed to fly up to 5 astronauts. SNC goals to make Dream Chaser value aggressive with others in the market, with Lindsey saying that his firm desires “to be down closer to what what SpaceX is targeting.” NASA expects SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will value about $55 million per individual.

“What’s really interesting is that a lot of the pricing really depends on the price of the rocket,” Lindsey stated. “Our costs, operating Dream Chaser by itself, are not that high. So what we’re excited to see is all the things that are happening [in the industry] – every single major launch company is building new rockets to be more price competitive. That’s one of the things that’s required for the low Earth orbit economy to take off, is those rocket prices drop.”

Currently United Launch Alliance, the three way partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is Dream Chaser’s launch supplier. SNC indicators a six mission cope with ULA to fly on the coming Vulcan rocket, with the first mission scheduled for subsequent yr.

“Our goal here is to get this vehicle to flight as soon as we possibly can, but we also have to do it safely,” Lindsey stated.

SNC could not but converse extra particularly to when launch day is scheduled, with Lindsey noting that the timing is “a negotiation between us and NASA.” But the company’s management final week stopped by SNC’s services in Louisville, Colorado, the place additionally they go to see Dream Chaser on the manufacturing flooring.

That Dream Chaser could also be constructed for cargo, however 85% of its components are the similar as the crew variation – with the construction additionally licensed for crew. 

“We have never lost track of [flying astronauts],” Lindsey stated. “Our intention is to go to crew eventually.”

Building infrastructure in orbit

The firm’s space habitat inflates throughout a take a look at.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

SNC’s engaged on a chunk of the infrastructure for folks to stay and work in space: An inflatable habitat, which the firm’s been creating beneath a NASA contract for a number of years. SNC’s habitat design has three flooring however, as a result of it is inflatable, it could possibly be launched on a standard rocket. The habitat has a wide range of functions, Lindsey famous, akin to a station in orbit or a base on the floor of the Moon. The firm’s latest testing has additionally discovered the inflatable construction to be even stronger than anticipated.

“We just completed testing with a third scale model and we had to end the testing because we couldn’t break it,” Lindsey stated.

Inflatable habitats have been checked out by different firms, due to the benefit of launching in a smaller kind issue after which increasing to a bigger quantity as soon as in space. Bigelow Aerospace is well-known for its growth of inflatable habitats, having linked its BEAM module to the International Space Station in 2016. But Bigelow Aerospace had not launched certainly one of its deliberate full dimension habitats earlier than the firm reportedly closed operations earlier this yr.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on show throughout a media briefing at which NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow introduced that BEAM will be part of the International Space Station to take a look at expandable space habitat know-how.

Getty Images

Lindsey famous that SNC’s construction and methodology is totally different than what Bigelow Aerospace was, however the two firms had labored collectively – as SNC constructed the mechanism that linked BEAM to the ISS.

In addition to the inflatable habitat, Lindsey has a complicated growth group at SNC that he stated “is looking at derivative Dream Chaser technologies and applying them in other areas.” That group got here up with a proposal for an orbital outpost that makes use of the Shooting Star cargo module – which SNC in July gained a contract for from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“Imagine a large, very capable satellite with a huge amount of power, that could optionally be crewed or uncrewed,” Lindsey stated.

Joining a number of lunar efforts 

The SNC VP put it merely: “We are heavily involved in pretty much everything that NASA is doing in exploration.” With the U.S. space company largely targeted on additional exploration of the Moon, SNC is part of three NASA efforts: The Human Landing Systems (HLS) program, the lunar Gateway, and the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

An artist’s rendition of Dynetics’ HLS lander on the Moon’s floor.

Dynetics

The HLS program is the largest near-term alternative, with NASA trying to make investments closely in not less than certainly one of the three groups competing to construct a lunar lander that may carry astronauts to-and-from the floor of the Moon. SNC is part of the HLS group led by Dynetics – a space firm owned by protection contractor Leidos – which is competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The three groups gained a mixed $967 million earlier this yr, with much more profitable awards anticipated in February after a 10 month design examine interval.

“We’re also involved in, believe it or not, building a lunar rover with several entities,” Lindsey stated. “While there hasn’t been a request for proposals … NASA is looking at an unpressurized rover that would actually carry people on the lunar surface – kind of an Apollo on steroids.”

Additionally, Lindsey famous that Japan’s space company lately partnered with NASA to present a pressurized lunar rover – one other proposal SNC is concerned in. 

“We are working through some partnerships right now on these two major rovers,” Lindsey stated. “We can’t really talk too much about teammates but … we’re going to go pursue that opportunity.”

Finally, SNC can also be contemplating utilizing its Shooting Star cargo module as a pressurized spacecraft that may carry astronauts from Earth’s orbit to the Moon. 

“We can go up with Dream Chaser, easily transfer crew into a free flying cargo module and use that to transport people,” Lindsey stated.

The Dream Chaser spacecraft is at the core of SNC’s imaginative and prescient for infrastructure in space – with the firm aiming to be part of lots of the areas that trade analysts count on will develop shortly in the subsequent decade.

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