Spaceflight Insider

Cargo Dream Chaser providing new life for NASA facilities

SNC Cargo Dream Chaser atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster on its wat to the International Space Station image credit Sierra Nevada Corporation posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — The Thermal Protection System Facility Annex or “TPSF” served NASA’s Space Shuttle Program during the iconic spacecrafts’ 30-years of service. It is now being used by one of the newest entrants under the second phase of the agency’s Commercial Resupply Services contract – Sierra Nevada Corporation.

In terms of CRS, the facility has been used on Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser shuttle. One of the original versions of the spacecraft were planned for use on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. However, when it came time for the selection of the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) down select (in September of 2014) – NASA opted to go with the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.

Thermal Protection System Facility Annex heat shield for Orion photo credit Jim Siegel SpaceFlight Insider

The TPSF Annex has been used to produce an array of thermal protection systems. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

SNC redoubled its efforts and came up with an automated version of Dream Chaser for the second phase of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract – more commonly known as “CRS-2.”

SpaceFlight Insider spoke with SNC’s John Curry to find out more about how the company is utilizing the TPSF for the development of Dream Chaser. Curry, who was once a flight director for NASA at the agency’s Johnson Space Center, now serves as the Senior Director for SNC’s Space Explorations Systems.

SpaceFlight Insider: Can you provide us with a bit of history concerning Dream Chaser and the TPSF Annex?

Curry: “Sure. In July of 2010, we started talking with Kennedy to start doing work and, of course, this was before it had been given to Jacobs [the company who currently manages the TPSF] the shuttle hadn’t even retired yet at that time. So we were discussing with them in terms of what needed to be done at the TPSF as far back as that.

“If you’re asking specifically about Jacobs and Kennedy – that would be around 2012-2013. The work, the actual detailed work, that they had done after we had paid them really hit its stride in 2013-2014. This was both before we lost CCtCap and then even afterwards. Through CCtCap there’s been some work that we’ve been doing on our own nickel because we feel strongly that we have a very good product. So, I think the answer to your question is 2012, in terms of the Annex and then the execution work done through that period – and that’s including the work done at several NASA centers.”

SpaceFlight Insider: About the other centers, can you provide us with some details as to what has been done?

Curry: “There has been testing at the Arc Jet facility out at Ames and then testing in the Radiant Heat Test Facility out at Johnson Space Center, with the actual production work being done by Kennedy.”

SpaceFlight Insider: What kind of work are you doing at the Annex in terms of Dream Chaser?

Curry: “We’ve been focused on the orbital vehicle, of course, all of the work that has been done by Kennedy…we’ve designed the orbital system based on improvements from shuttle. We’ve even put together a summary on how the thermal protection system of Dream Chaser is way better than what shuttle flew, as well as being a much safer design.

“We got into the design side of that and worked with Ames on a lot of that stuff and then, once we got the design where we were ready to go to manufacturing – we went to Kennedy. What we had Kennedy do for us, originally, was produce the things that we wanted to test for the orbital vehicle out at the Arc Jet facility. So that included the coating that goes on the outside of the thermal protection system.

“You’re looking at white versus black coating, to see what the effects of it are when you’re on orbit, versus what it goes through when it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Jacobs Thermal Protection System Facility Annex heat tile being held in Jacobs' employee's hand. Photo Credit Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

Jacobs currently manages the TPSF Annex. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

“Then there’s the actual physical build of both the thermal test articles for the same kind of tile material that we had on shuttle called the AETB [Alumina Enhanced Thermal Barrier] and there’s different variants of that. We had them build those test articles for us and then the new stuff is called “TUFROC” – it’s a replacement for the Reinforced Carbon Carbon that flew on shuttle.

“TUFROC [Toughened Unipiece Fibrous Reinforced Oxidation-Resistant Composite] is a much stronger material, it is much more resistant to issues. So we had them manufacture that stuff as well, then we took those manufactured samples and sent them back out to Ames Research Center and had them put them in the Arc Jet Facility to prove that they could work and they did, they worked really, really well.”

“There were two milestones that we had with NASA, the biggest one being what we called CCiCap Milestone 9 which were a lot of tests of risk burndown, which I guess is the best way to look at it. The thermal protection system has been a risk area and so we manufactured those tests articles and put them in the Arc Jet…that came out very well and we passed milestone 9 with flying colors.”

“As far as the Annex work that we do…this was all done via reimbursable Space Act Agreements where some of, most of the Annex’ work that we have done up to now have been done at the Kennedy Space Center and then Jacobs is the provider that negotiates with them. Some of this has been done with a Space Act Agreement and some of it has been with a CSLA [Commercial Space Launch Act].”

SpaceFlight Insider: Can you give us a bit more information about which of NASA’s centers have been involved with the design and development of Dream Chaser’s TPSF?

“There’s Ames Research Center work that has been done of the TPS, there’s Johnson Space Center work that has been done on the TPS, there’s some work that has been done at Glenn [Research Center] and, of course, there’s work that has been done at the TPSF which has actually been doing the manufacturing of the stuff.

“So, during the design and development phase, we moved into the manufacturing side of things to just prove out that we can actually manufacture the stuff that we’ve been asked to. ”

SpaceFlight Insider: Can you provide us with some details about the next milestones for Dream Chaser?

Thermal Protection System Facility Annex thermal blanket segments photo credit Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

The TPSF Annex is used to produce an array of materials critical to the survival of spacecraft returning through Earth’s atmosphere. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

Curry: “We’re about to fly the entry test article again here at the end of this year or the first quarter of next year [2015-2016]. It’s ready to ship, we’re going to ship the engineering test article back out to Edwards Air Force Base in October.

“What will be different between this upcoming test and the test we did in October of 2013, is that we went ahead and put orbital test vehicle stuff on the vehicle in certain areas so that we can get some additional verification and validation credit. In terms of the thermal protection system what we have decided to do is go ahead and fly the actual, real thermal protection system that would be on the underbelly of the Dream Chaser, where the skid goes. We’re going to fly that material in four pieces of tile that goes in a patterned shape on the skid as such that when the skid deploys to land out at Edwards too.

“Then we’re going to characterize how that thermal protection system when it touches down on the runway and then when we’re rolling out how it disintegrates. Because it is going to disintegrate pretty predictably, as it is supposed to, as it was designed. Because it has done its job to keep the vehicle safe through the upper atmosphere and, at this point we don’t need it for anything. We just want to characterize and make sure that as Dream Chaser lands on the runway that these sections disintegrate in the pattern that we predicted that it would.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Are there any difference between the heat tiles that were to be used on the CCP Dream Chaser and those that will be used on the CRS-2 Dream Chaser?

Curry: “Nope, they are identical. We were qualified to the human-rating standards and our vehicle is still capable of absorbing the same amount of energy and the same amount of heat that we were for crew. It’s a very capable system.”

SpaceFlight Insider: Thanks for speaking with us John.

Curry: “It was my pleasure, have a great day.”

The CRS-2 Dream Chaser will have foldable wings (so as to be able to fit in a 5 meter payload fairing). This has an extra benefit in that the cargo version of Dream Chaser could also be launched on either the Atlas V or Ariane 5.

Another distinguishing feature of the cargo variant – is the expendable cargo module which will be affixed to the spacecraft’s aft section. In this configuration Dream Chaser should have the ability to hoist 11,000 lbs (5,000 kg) of pressurized and 1,100 lbs (500 kg) of cargo to the International Space Station. As the cargo module is not designed to return to Earth, it can be used to dispose of some 7,170 lbs (3,250 kg) of used experiments and trash.

Video courtesy of SNC Space Systems


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Very cool developments. Can’t wait to see this new vehicle take to the skies and into the black. Thanks for keeping the dream alive.

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