Catching a dream: SNC’s tenacious spacecraft selected for NASA’s CRS-2 contract
During a press conference held on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, NASA announced the winners of the second phase of contracts for its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. Those announced included names established under CRS, as well as one new one – Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane.
The Commercial Resupply Services contract was designed to allow NASA to cede responsibility of delivering cargo and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA opted to add SNC’s space shuttle to the two, current providers under the initial phase of CRS.
Present at the conference were the following: Ellen Ochoa, the director of Johnson Space Center; Sam Scimemi, ISS Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington; Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at JSC; and Julie Robinson, ISS chief scientist at Johnson.
“Few would have imagined back in 2010 when President Barack Obama pledged that NASA would work ‘with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable’, that less than six years later we’d be able to say commercial carriers have transported 35,000 pounds of space cargo (and counting!) to the International Space Station – or that we’d be so firmly on track to return launches of American astronauts to the ISS from American soil on American commercial carriers. But that is exactly what is happening,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden via an agency-issued release. “Today’s announcement is a big deal that will move the president’s vision further into the future.”
Some of the many reasons that Dream Chaser captured this award are the fact that, due to its folding wing design, it’s able to be launched on at least two different launch vehicles (using a five-meter fairing). Moreover, according to SNC, the cargo version of Dream Chaser exceeds all of NASA’s cargo transportation requirements to the orbiting lab. The vehicle is capable of delivering both pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS.
Perhaps even more notable than these benefits is the fact that SNC has stated Dream Chaser is capable of providing some of the periodic reboosts to the station’s orbit that are required from time-to-time. On top of that, unlike other U.S. commercial cargo vessels (and owning to its development as a crewed spacecraft), Dream Chaser can either be berthed or docked to the ISS.
The Dream Chaser cargo system is comprised of two core elements, the Dream Chaser shuttle itself, as well as the cargo module. Those attending the conference noted how the CRS-2 contract could benefit the station’s capabilities.
“These resupply flights will be conducted in parallel with our Commercial Crew Program providers’ flights that enable [the] addition of a seventh astronaut to the International Space Station. This will double the amount of crew time to conduct research,” said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS Program. “These missions will be vital for delivering the experiments and investigations that will enable NASA and our partners to continue this important research.”
Those who submitted proposals, but were not selected, also weighed in on the importance of this announcement.
“Whereas we are disappointed that we were not selected for NASA’s CRS-2 contract, we remain fully committed in supporting NASA and the revolutionary work taking place on the International Space Station. We knew our reusable approach was unique and addressed a broader set of mission goals, and although NASA chose to take another direction for ISS resupply, we are proud of this technology and believe it can support future exploration goals,” said Wanda Sigur, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s civil space line. “The team is very excited by NASA’s selection of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, and we look forward to supporting SNC on this very important program.”
Neither Lockheed Martin nor Boeing’s proposals were selected, something that surprised some industry analysts.
Joining Sierra Nevada will be two companies who have already conducted 11 successful resupply missions to the ISS( Orbital ATK and Space Exploration Technologies or “SpaceX“). In essence, the CRS program will remain the same, but it will gain SNC as a contributor. According to a tweet by SpaceFlight Now’s Stephen Clark, Dream Chaser should begin missions in (late) 2019 and extend until 2024.
Sierra Nevada had submitted a proposal for a crewed version of Dream Chaser under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during the announcement of awardees under the Commercial Crew transportation Capability phase of that contract, but Dream Chaser was not selected. Rather, during the Sept. 2014 announcement, the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner were tapped to ferry crews to the ISS.
Sierra Nevada regrouped and developed a proposal based off the many strengths Dream Chaser possesses to submit it as a cargo carrier. This approach worked, something touched on during the opening of today’s press conference.
“To achieve the seemingly impossible, we must be lean, agile, and adaptive to change,” Ochoa said. “This philosophy is applied to every aspect of human space flight that we touch today – from the International Space Station and Orion to the various technology development programs that are laying the groundwork for our journey to Mars.”
In many ways, today’s announcement was the culmination of more than 50 years of development. In the late 1950s, the U.S. Air Force’s X-20 Dyna-Soar program looked into the feasibility of a somewhat similar design. This progressed to the HL-10 in the ’60s, the Soviet Union’s Bor-4 in the ’80s and NASA’s HL-20 in the ’90s. The design had developed a loyal following and many iterations, of which Sierra Nevada’s has become the most prominent.
“The Dream Chaser Cargo System offers NASA a safe, reliable, and affordable solution for ISS cargo delivery, return, and disposal, ensuring the effective utilization and sustainability of the ISS for years to come,” said Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems via a release issued by the company. “Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States’ winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing. We wanted to thank our more than 30 industry, university and NASA center partners for helping us make history and open up the next generation of spaceflight.”
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.