Sierra Nevada Forges European Partnerships for Development of Dream Chaser

Image Louisville-based Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Space Systems is reaching across the Atlantic to forge partnerships with the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center that could open new markets and lead to new uses for its Dream Chaser space vehicle, the company announced in a news conference Wednesday. The idea behind the agreements is to apply European aerospace technologies to the Dream Chaser so that it can one day be used for missions beyond simply ferrying crew and cargo to the International Space Station.
Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, told reporters in a conference call from Virginia that the company is planning for well into the future of Dream Chaser, a shuttle-like vehicle that is being built for NASA's commercial crew program.

"We are constantly looking at what we can do with the Dream Chaser today, but also with variants of the Dream Chaser in the future," he said. "How can we upgrade it? Are there better avionics, are there other ways to do docking systems? Are there things that exist that might make us better?"

In turn, European countries would get access to a proven, ready-to-go spacecraft that they had a hand in developing. They could contract to use Dream Chaser for various missions, avoiding the expensive and drawn out prospect of developing a full-blown space program of their own.

Dream Chaser, which is designed to seat seven astronauts, is expected to make its first unmanned orbital flight in 2016 and its first manned flight a year later.

'Basket of technologies'

Sirangelo said during the conference that Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which employs 350 people at its headquarters in Louisville's Colorado Technology Center, wants to tap a "basket of technologies" at the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.

"That vital knowledge and database is going to be able to move our program to the next level," he said.

Johann-Dietrich Worner, chair of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center, said the Dream Chaser could be useful for the European space program in terms of providing redundancies for space travel to the International Space Station and beyond.

He said his agency has expertise in robotics and lightweight materials development, while Elena Grifoni Winters, who heads up the Human Spaceflight and Operations Directorate at the European Space Agency, said docking systems technology is a strong suit at her organization.

"It's an energetic approach of different competencies that we can put together," Worner said.

Sierra Nevada's announcement this morning comes in the wake of a partnership the company formed with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. a year ago to have the Littleton-based company build the composite structure for the Dream Chaser.

Sirangelo said Sierra Nevada is now working with about a dozen space companies in its quest to build and fly the Dream Chaser and hopes that its new European partnerships will result in a space-focused development "dream team."

Less funding from NASA

That may not be enough to put Sierra Nevada in line for the next round of funding from NASA, said Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review. The company was one of three -- the other two being SpaceX and Boeing -- to receive a major sum of money from the space agency in 2012.

But Foust said if the U.S. Congress doesn't pony up significant funds for NASA's commercial crew program this year, the agency may be forced to trim the number of companies in its program to two, or even one.

A decision on funding could come from Congress in the next week or so. NASA is expected to announce disbursement amounts and recipients this summer.

"There could be some hard decisions coming up for the companies that aren't selected for the next phase of the program," Foust said.

Sierra Nevada, he said, is already at a "funding disadvantage" because it received about half as much money -- $212.5 million -- as each of its competitors did in 2012. He said that shortfall could explain why the company is turning to Europe.

"It gives them an impetus to look for partnerships to close that gap," Foust said.

SpaceX, run by South Africa-born billionaire Elon Musk, has already sent its Dragon capsule to the space station three times and is scheduled to do so a fourth time next month.

Sierra Nevada's saving grace, Foust said, could be Dream Chaser's unique design. Instead of launching a capsule into space, as SpaceX has already done and Boeing is planning to do, Sierra Nevada can put into service a vehicle that can land at most airports with more gentle re-entry forces than a capsule splashing down at sea.

NASA may want the diversity in vehicle designs if just two companies make the cut this summer, he said, giving Sierra Nevada a better chance of staying in the game.

'In it for the long haul'

Paul Guthrie, senior economist at space industry consulting firm The Tauri Group in Alexandria, Va., said Sierra Nevada also has the advantage of having been in the space game for a while, building small satellites and rocket motor systems for other companies. It is not as dependent on outside funding as upstart companies might be, he said.

"If you look at Sierra Nevada and what they've been doing over the last decade, they've been developing the next generation of spacecraft for different markets and different applications," Guthrie said. "They're really in it for the long haul."

Sirangelo said as much in Wednesday's press conference when asked about a potential halt in NASA funding.

"If for some reason it doesn't (continue), we fully expect the program will continue -- it has reached a level of maturity where that is possible," he said.

And while yet another company in the race, Orbital Sciences Corp., is scheduled to launch its Cygnus cargo capsule today to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday, Guthrie said the company has shown less inclination than Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing have, to move from cargo transport to human spaceflight. (Source: By John Aguilar,
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07