SNC completes first NASA commercial cargo milestone
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) completed an important International Space Station (ISS) Integration Certification Milestone for their Dream Chaser Cargo System under their Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract with NASA. The agency approved SNC’s program implementation plan for the design, development, test, and evaluation of Dream Chaser.
As part of this work, SNC delivered plans and processes for meeting technical performance requirements and established CRS-2 integration schedules for docking and berthing missions to the ISS. According to a media release from SNC, under the CRS-2 contract, Dream Chaser will provide a minimum of six cargo delivery services to and from the ISS between 2019 and 2024. A dollar value of the work was not released.
Dream Chaser is a small lifting-body vehicle 33 feet (10 meters) long with stubby, foldable winglets that allow it to launch vertically aboard an Atlas V or Ariane rocket and glide back to Earth and land horizontally on a runway like the Space Shuttle.
The vehicle also includes a cargo module that can be detached when it departs from ISS. SNC originally designed the vehicle to support Commercial Crew operations. However, it was ultimately not selected for that program. Despite the setback, SNC continued the development of the spacecraft.
“The accelerated completion of the first milestone under the CRS-2 contract award marks significant progress for SNC and the Dream Chaser program,” said Mark Sirangelo, the corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area. “This momentum will carry us with confidence in developing a reliable and affordable solution for ISS cargo delivery, return and disposal.”
SNC noted in its release that it plans to resume the next phase of flight testing for Dream Chaser later this year. The test vehicle, which suffered a mechanical failure that caused it to flip over upon landing in 2013, has been significantly upgraded to test critical systems needed to support ISS cargo resupply missions.
In addition to the CRS-2 work, SNC has entered into a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), the German Aerospace Center to develop Dream Chaser for European space activities.
Spaceflight Insider spoke with John Olson, vice president of SNC Space Systems about Dream Chaser and what will happen with the vehicle in the future.
Spaceflight Insider: Where does SNC go from here? What’s the next step in the commercial cargo process for you?
Olson: “We’re in execution mode now. We’re working on the second and third Integration Reviews, the third one being equivalent to a full PDR (preliminary design review). It’s all about getting those smartly executed. We’re also looking to get the Engineering Test Article done and doing a series of ground and flight tests. We’ll do gear testing, taxi tow testing at increasing speeds, and then drop tests from a helicopter. Then we’ll do a free-flight test in the later part of the year or early next spring if the weather cooperates.”
Spaceflight Insider: What is the status of Dream Chaser right now? You had a landing gear problem on the last flight.
Olson: “The gear failure used a hydraulic system and borrowed gear from NASA to reduce cost and time—it has no forward flight pedigree on the orbital vehicle, as we will use an all-electric system. We’ve repaired our original engineering test article (ETA) that we’re using for atmospheric flight test only and plan to test and fly it again at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Edwards Air Force Base). That borrowed hydraulic gear will not be used on the orbital vehicle. Even in the worst of the landing gear configuration we had (left main failed to retract until touchdown), the vehicle did extremely well. It’s very robust and with the next flight we’re advancing risk reduction by about a year. It’ll be using a new flush air data collection system and new flight computers and software.”
Spaceflight Insider: How many vehicles exist right now, and are there more being built?
Olson: “Right now we have the ETA and we have a full orbital vehicle structure. Ultimately we’ll have three airframes, including a structural test article (STA), and two orbital vehicle structures. We hope, with increased demand, that we can build even more.”
Spaceflight Insider: What are you doing with your European customers? What’s the future of Dream Chaser?
Olson: “We’re working with ESA, and its member states including Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Poland, Netherlands, plus Japan, and with governments and industry around the world. We’re building bilateral and multilateral agreements as part of our broad-based market approach. That’s been successful to date. We’ve signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs to provide affordable payload opportunities for member states, which will bring space to more people around the world in a more responsive fashion. We believe space sustainability comes from a broad and diverse marketplace, and we see Dream Chaser as an SUV for multiple applications.”
Spaceflight Insider: Anything else you’d like people to know?
Olson: “We have Steve Lindsey (five-time Shuttle astronaut) and John Curry (former NASA flight director) as our co-program managers leading our team on the NASA CRS-2 program, and they’re excited to be part of it. This is a big, bold challenging program we’re attempting, and we take it very seriously. With Dream Chaser, wings are back for NASA and the nation, and we hope this 21st-century multi-mission space utility vehicle (SUV) will create new missions and markets that will broadly benefit humanity.”
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.