Sierra Nevada Dreamchaser Will Launch on First Orbital Flight Test in November 2016

Commercial space company Sierra Nevada Corporation and NASA announced plans today to launch an orbital test flight of the Dream Chaser vehicle in 2016, and that they plan to use processing facilities at Kennedy Space Center as well as land the vehicle at NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida.

“Today we’re very proud to announce that we have now formally negotiated our orbital spaceflight,” said Mark Sirangelo, the head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “We have acquired an Atlas V rocket and established a launch date of November 1, 2016, so in a little over two years from now and we’re going to be taking our vehicle to space on the board one of the best rockets that has ever been designed, the Atlas V.”

The mission will be automated and unmanned, but if all goes well Sierra Nevada hopes to have a human flight by sometime in 2017.

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC
The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

The seven-passenger vehicle looks like a mini-space shuttle and is about 9 meters long (29.5 feet) with a wingspan of 7 meters (22.9 feet).

Sirangelo said they will be doing Dream Chaser pre- and post-flight processing at KSC along with Lockheed Martin at the Operations and Checkout (O&C) facility at KSC. The O&C is an historic facility which was originally built to process Gemini and Apollo era spacecraft. After significant upgrades by NASA and the State of Florida, it is currently being used by Lockheed Martin Space Systems to develop, assemble and test NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

The 2017 flights will be the first time an Atlas V will be used to send people to space since the Mercury program. The landing at the SLF will be the first landing of a space vehicle there since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, landed there on July 21, 2011.

“That is way too long (between landings),” said Steve Lindsey, former NASA astronaut and now Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser program manager, “and we intend to do something about it and do it very soon… We want to continue the long tradition that was started on the Florida space coast so many years ago.”

During a question and answer period with media, questions were asked about which entity is paying for which portions of the launch and processing. But the officials were coy about not answering those questions directly.

Officials from NASA, Sierra Nevada, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and Space Florida took part in the announcement, which you can watch below.

“Today’s announcement confirms the faith the commercial industry has in Kennedy Space Center,” said Bob Cabana, the director of Kennedy Space Center.

Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The Dream Chaser had a test landing in October, 2013 after it was hoisted in the air by a helicopter. The automated landing went well except that one of the landing gears failed to deploy properly.

Sierra Nevada announced last week that they had completed their latest milestone for the NASA’s commercial crew program, the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap), Milestone 7, which is the Certification Plan Review for the entire Dream Chaser Space System. They delivered nearly 6,000 pages of technical documentation on the strategy, verification, and validation of Dream Chaser and its integration with the Atlas V launch vehicle and ground mission control systems.

Human Spaceflight, Planetary Missions Face Potential Cuts in Latest NASA Budget Negotiations

While 2014 budget negotiations are not finalized yet, there’s already some noise of concern in different space communities that depend on NASA. Here’s a brief roundup of some of the news lately:

Could the Cassini Saturn mission get the axe? Wired’s Adam Mann warns that NASA may not be able to fund all of its planetary science missions in the coming year. Based on a statement that Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director, made to an agency advisory council earlier this month, Mann narrows in on the Curiosity and Cassini missions as the big flagship missions that are requiring the most in terms of resources. Cassini is functioning perfectly and providing reams of data from Saturn and its moons, causing concern from planetary scientists about losing it early.

Only one commercial crew partner? NASA issued a cautious news release this week saying it is prepared to launch Americans from their own soil in 2017, “subject to the availability of adequate funding.” The agency is now moving into a new phase of its commercial crew program called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), saying it is prepared to “award one or more CCtCap contracts no later than September 2014.” That means that the three companies currently funded — Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX — may face stiff competition for more money.

New report suggesting stopping NASA’s human spaceflight program: Before reading any further, do not jump to conclusions — making recommendations like this is a common practice by the Congressional Budget Office, which looks at all possibilities as it presents options for spending. Still, Space Politics’ Jeff Foust presents the report and generates some interesting comments after his story about the value of human spaceflight. For context, NASA and its international agency partners will need to make a decision fairly soon about continuing space station operations past 2020, so it’s possible the human spaceflight program could change.

What do you think of these proposals? Let us know in the comments.

Damaged Dream Chaser Can be Fixed and Program to Move Forward with Flight Tests – Video

Left landing gear tire visibly failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Watch approach and landing test video below[/caption]

The privately built Dream Chaser ‘space taxi’ that was damaged after landing during its otherwise successful first ever free-flight glide test on Saturday, Oct 26, is repairable and the program will live on to see another day, says the developer Sierra Nevada Corp., (SNC).

The Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle skidded off the runway and landed sideways when its left landing gear failed to deploy at the last second during touchdown on runway 22L at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC Space Systems, at a media teleconference.

The primary goal of the Oct. 26 drop test was to see whether the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle would successfully fly free after being released by an Erickson Air-Crane from an altitude of over 12,000 feet and glide autonomously for about a minute to a touchdown on the Mojave desert landing strip.

“We had a very successful day with an unfortunate anomaly at the end of the day on one of the landing gears,” said Sirangelo.

Dream Chaser is one of three private sector manned spaceships being developed with funding from NASA’s commercial crew program known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station – totally lost following the space shuttle retirement.

Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The unmanned approach and landing test (ALT) accomplished 99% of its objectives and was only marred by the mechanical failure of the left tire to drop down and deploy for a safe and smooth rollout.

SNC released a short 1 minute video of the test flight – see below – showing the helicopter drop, dive, glide and flare to touchdown. The failure of the landing gear to drop is clearly seen. But the video cuts away just prior to touchdown and does not show the aftermath of the skid or damage to the vehicle.

“The Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L right on centerline,” said SNC in a statement with the video.

The vehicle is “repairable and flyable again,” Sirangelo noted.

More good news is that the ships interior was not damaged and the exterior can be fixed.

Dream Chaser measures about 29 feet long with a 23 foot wide wing span and is about one third the size of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.

Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Since there was no pilot in the cockpit no one was injured. That also meant that no evasive action could be taken to drop the gear.

“We don’t think it’s actually going to set us back,” Sirangelo noted. “In some interesting way, it might actually accelerate it.

NASA’s commercial crew initiative aims at restoring America’s manned spaceflight access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) – perhaps by 2017 – following the forced shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Until an American commercial space taxi is ready for liftoff, NASA is completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut rides to the ISS at a cost of roughly $70 million per seat.

Because Congress continues to significantly cut NASA’s budget further delays can be expected – inevitably meaning more payments to Russia and no savings for the American tax payer.

SNC was awarded $227.5 million in the current round of NASA funding and must successfully complete specified milestones, including up to five ALT drop tests to check the aerodynamic handling in order to receive payment.

Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

This particular vehicle had been intended to fly two test flights. Further drop tests were planned with a new test vehicle to be constructed.

The way forward is being evaluated.

“We don’t think there is going to be any significant delay to the program as a result of this. This was meant to be a test vehicle with a limited number of flights,” Sirangelo said.

SNC and NASA have assembled a team to investigate the cause of the anomaly.

“SNC cannot release any further video at this time,” said SNC.

Dream Chaser is a reusable mini shuttle that launches from the Florida Space Coast atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and lands on the shuttle landing facility (SLF) runway at the Kennedy Space Center, like the space shuttle.

Ken Kremer

Dream Chaser spaceship test article damaged during 1st Free-Flight Drop Test

The engineering test article of the commercial Dream Chaser spaceship being developed by Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) suffered some significant damage during its critical 1st ever approach-and-landing (ALT) drop test on Saturday, Oct. 26, in California due to an unspecified type of malfunction with the deployment of the left landing gear.

The Dream Chaser mini-shuttle suffered “an anomaly as it touched down on the Runway 22L at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.,” according to a post-test statement from NASA.

A report at NASA Spaceflight.com indicated that the Dream Chaser “flipped over on the runway” after touchdown.

The full extent of damage to the winged vehicle or whether it can be repaired and reflown is not known at this time. No photos or details explaining the damage have yet emerged – beyond brief press releases issued by SNC and NASA.

The performance of the vehicles’ nose skid, brakes, tires and other flight systems is being tested to prove that it can safely land an astronaut crew returning from the space station after surviving the searing heat of re-entry from Earth orbit.

This initial atmospheric drop test was conducted in an automated mode. There was no pilot on board and no one was hurt on the ground.

“No personnel were injured. Damage to property is being assessed,” said NASA. “Edwards Air Force Base emergency personnel responded to scene as a precaution.

“Support personnel are preparing the vehicle for transport to a hangar.”

Dream Chaser is one of three private sector manned spaceships being developed with funding from NASA’s commercial crew program known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle.

Dream Chaser on the runway with landing gear deployed. Credit: NASA
Dream Chaser on the runway with landing gear deployed. Credit: NASA

The NASA seed money aims at restoring America’s manned spaceflight access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) – perhaps by 2017 – following the forced shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Until one of the American commercial space taxis is ready for liftoff, NASA is completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut rides to the ISS at a cost of roughly $70 million per seat.

SNC was awarded $227.5 million in the current round of NASA funding and must complete specified milestones including up to five ALT drop tests to check the aerodynamic handling.

To date this test vehicle has successfully accomplished a series of runway tow and airborne captive carry tests.

Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS
Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

Development of crew versions of the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 capsules are also being funded by NASA’s commercial crew program office.

Dream Chaser can carry a crew of up to seven and is the only reusable, lifting body shuttle type vehicle with runway landing capability among the three competitors.

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

During Saturday’s test, SNC was performing the first in a series of free-flight approach-and-landing tests with the Dream Chaser prototype test vehicle known as the ETA.

The prototype spaceship was released as planned from its carrier aircraft, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, at approximately 11:10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (2:10 p.m. EDT), said SNC in a statement.

Dream Chaser awaits launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
Dream Chaser awaits launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
The post release flare and touchdown appeared normal at first until the left landing gear deployment failed at some point after runway touchdown.

“Following release, the Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L right on centerline,” according to the SNC press release.

SNC went on to say that reviews are in progress to determine the cause of the landing gear failure.

“While there was an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment, the high-quality flight and telemetry data throughout all phases of the approach-and-landing test will allow SNC teams to continue to refine their spacecraft design. SNC and NASA Dryden are currently reviewing the data. As with any space flight test program, there will be anomalies that we can learn from, allowing us to improve our vehicle and accelerate our rate of progress.”

The engineering test article (ETA) is a full sized vehicle.

Dream Chaser is a reusable mini shuttle that launches from the Florida Space Coast atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and lands on the shuttle landing facility (SLF) runway at the Kennedy Space Center, like the space shuttle.

“It’s not outfitted for orbital flight. It is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests,” said Marc Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman told Universe Today previously.

“The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight,” Sirangelo told me.

We’ll provide further details as they become known.

Ken Kremer

Dream Chaser Prepares For Flight After Crucial Ground Tests

Another kind of commercial spacecraft is almost ready to take flight, its backers say.

Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser recently finished four low- and high-speed ground tests at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., the same spot where the shuttle was put through its paces in early tests of its program. Several shuttle flights also landed at Dryden.

The Dream Chaser tow-and-release tests, which took place at speeds ranging from 10 to 60 miles per hour (16 to 96 kilometers per hour), examined items such as the flight computer, how the guidance performed, steering parameters and the flight surfaces.

“Watching Dream Chaser undergo tow testing on the same runway where we landed several space shuttle orbiters brings a great amount of pride to our Dream Chaser team,” stated Steve Lindsey, SNC’s Space Systems senior director of programs, who is also a former NASA astronaut.

“We are another step closer to restoring America’s capability to return U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.”

The next step will be an approach and landing test, which should take place sometime in the third quarter of 2013.

SNC is one of three companies receiving money from NASA under the agency’s commercial crew program, whose goal is to move astronaut launches back to American soil in the next few years. The other competitors are SpaceX and Boeing. You can read a more in-depth look at their proposals here.

Source: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Spacesuited Astronauts Climb Aboard Boeing CST-100 Commercial Crew Capsule for Key Tests

A pair of NASA astronauts donned their spacesuits for key fit check evaluations inside a test version of the Boeing Company’s CST-100 commercial ‘space taxi’ which was unveiled this week for the world’s first glimpse of the cabin’s interior.

Boeing is among a trio of American aerospace firms, including SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp, seeking to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Astronauts Serena Aunon and Randy Bresnik conducted a day long series of technical evaluations inside a fully outfitted, full scale mock up of the CST-100, while wearing NASA’s iconic orange launch-and-entry flight suits from the space shuttle era.

During the tests, Boeing technicians monitored the astronauts ergonomic ability to work in the seats and move around during hands on use of the capsules equipment, display consoles and storage compartments.

The purpose of the testing at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center is to see what works well and what needs modifications before fixing the final capsule design for construction.

“It’s an upgrade,” said astronaut Serena Aunon at the evaluation. “It is an American vehicle, of course it is an upgrade.”

This is an interior view of The Boeing Company's CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.  Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
This is an interior view of The Boeing Company’s CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.
Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Former NASA Astronaut Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s test effort as the director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations.

“These are our customers. They’re the ones who will take our spacecraft into flight, and if we’re not building it the way they want it we’re doing something wrong,” said Ferguson.

“We’ll probably make one more go-around and make sure that everything is just the way they like it.”

The CST-100 is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts, or a mix of cargo and crew, on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.

Although it resembles Boeing’s Apollo-era capsules from the outside, the interior employs state of the art modern technology including sky blue LED lighting and tablet technology.

Check out this video showing the astronauts and engineers during the CST-100 testing

Nevertheless Boeing’s design goal is to keep the flight technology as simple as possible.

“What you’re not going to find is 1,100 or 1,600 switches,” said Ferguson. “When these guys go up in this, they’re primary mission is not to fly this spacecraft, they’re primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don’t want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive.”

The CST-100 crew transporter will fly to orbit atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing
The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manger for Commercial Programs.

The 1st docking mission to the ISS would follow in 2017 – depending on the very uncertain funding that Congress approves for NASA.

The Atlas V was also chosen to launch one of Boeing’s commercial crew competitors, namely the Dream Chaser mini shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corp.

Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule early mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace America’s capability to launch humans to space that was lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters two years ago in July 2011.

Since 2011, every American astronaut has been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsule to hitch a ride to the ISS.

“We pay one of our [ISS] partners, the Russians, $71 million a seat to fly,” says Ed Mango, CCP’s program manager. “What we want to do is give that to an American company to fly our crews into space.”

Simultaneously NASA and its industry partners are designing and building the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Near Earth Asteroids and Mars.

Ken Kremer

Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA
Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser Gets Wings and Tail, Starts Ground Testing

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser successfully rolls through two tow tests at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California in preparation for future flight testing later this year.
Watch way cool Dream Chaser assembly video below![/caption]

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s winged Dream Chaser engineering test article is moving forward with a series of ground tests at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California that will soon lead to dramatic aerial flight tests throughout 2013.

Pathfinding tow tests on Dryden’s concrete runway aim to validate the performance of the vehicles’ nose skid, brakes, tires and other systems to prove that it can safely land an astronaut crew after surviving the searing re-entry from Earth orbit.

The Dream Chaser is one of the three types of private sector ‘space taxis’ being developed with NASA seed money to restore America’s capability to blast humans to Earth orbit from American soil – a capability which was totally lost following the forced shutdown of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS
Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

For the initial ground tests, the engineering test article was pulled by a tow truck at 10 and 20 MPH. Later this month tow speeds will be ramped up to 40 to 60 MPH.

Final assembly of the Dream Chaser test vehicle was completed at Dryden with installation of the wings and tail, following shipment from SNC’s Space Systems headquarters in Louisville, Colo.

Watch this exciting minute-long, time-lapse video showing attachment of the wings and tail:

In the next phase later this year, Sierra Nevada will conduct airborne captive carry tests using an Erickson Skycrane helicopter.

Atmospheric drop tests of the engineering test article in an autonomous free flight mode for Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) will follow to check the aerodynamic handling.

The engineering test article is a full sized vehicle.

Dream Chaser is a reusable mini shuttle that launches from the Florida Space Coast atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and lands on the shuttle landing facility (SLF) runway at the Kennedy Space Center, like the Space Shuttle.

“It’s not outfitted for orbital flight. It is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests,” said Marc Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman, to Universe Today.

“The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight,” Sirangelo told me.

NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center welcomes SNC’s Dream Chaser shrink wrapped engineering test article for a flight test program in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program this summer. Winds and tail were soon joined and ground testing has now begun. Credit: NASA/Tom Tschida Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/102020/sierra-nevada-dream-chaser-gets-wings-and-tail-starts-ground-testing/#ixzz2Yw1peNRJ
NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center welcomes SNC’s Dream Chaser shrink wrapped engineering test article for a flight test program in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program this summer. Winds and tail were soon joined and ground testing has now begun. Credit: NASA/Tom Tschida

Sierra Nevada Corp, along with Boeing and SpaceX are working with NASA in a public-private partnership using a combination of NASA seed money and company funds.

Each company was awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap, program, the third in a series of contracts aimed at kick starting the development of the private sector ‘space taxis’ to fly US and partner astronauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

“We are the emotional successors to the shuttle,” says Sirangelo. “Our target was to repatriate that industry back to the United States, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The combined value of NASA’s Phase 1 CCiCap contracts is about $1.1 Billion and runs through March 2014.

Phase 2 contract awards will eventually lead to actual flight units after a down selection to one or more of the companies.

Everything depends on NASA’s approved budget, which seems headed for steep cuts in excess of a billion dollars if the Republican dominated US House has its way.

Dream Chaser awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket
Dream Chaser awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket

The Commercial Crew program’s goal is to ensure the nation has safe, reliable and affordable crew transportation systems to space.

“Unique public-private partnerships like the one between NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation are creating an industry capable of building the next generation of rockets and spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the scientific proving ground of low-Earth orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington, in a statement.

“NASA centers around the country paved the way for 50 years of American human spaceflight, and they’re actively working with our partners to test innovative commercial space systems that will continue to ensure American leadership in exploration and discovery.”

All three commercial vehicles – the Boeing CST-100; SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser – are designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts and remain docked at the ISS for more than 6 months.

The first orbital flight test of the Dream Chaser is not expected before 2016 and could be further delayed if NASA’s commercial crew budget is again slashed by the Congress – as was done the past few years.

In the meantime, US astronauts are totally dependent on Russia’s Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS. NASA must pay Russia upwards of $70 million per seat until the space taxis are ready for liftoff – perhaps in 2017.

“We have got to get Commercial Crew funded, or we’re going to be paying the Russians forever,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at Dryden. “Without Commercial Crew, we probably won’t have exploration.”

Concurrently, NASA is developing the Orion Crew capsule for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and beyond to Mars and other destinations in our Solar System -details here.

Ken Kremer

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser spacecraft landing on a traditional runway. Dream Chaser is being developed in collaboration with NASA's Commercial Crew Program during the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP).  Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser spacecraft landing on a traditional runway. Dream Chaser is being developed in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program during the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP). Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Dream Chaser Readies, Gets Set For Flight Testing

It was surely one of those moments where NASA could hardly wait to tear off the shrink wrap. Sierra Nevada Corp.’s privately constructed Dream Chaser spacecraft engineering test article arrived at the Dryden Flight Research Center last week — wrapped in plastic for shipping protection — ahead of some flight and runway tests in the next few months.

“Tests at Dryden will include tow, captive-carry and free-flight tests of the Dream Chaser. A truck will tow the craft down a runway to validate performance of the nose strut, brakes and tires,” NASA stated.

“The captive-carry flights will further examine the loads it will encounter during flight as it is carried by an Erickson Skycrane helicopter. The free flight later this year will test Dream Chaser’s aerodynamics through landing.”

The ultimate goal is to get the United States bringing its own astronauts into space again.

A Sierra Nevada employee removes plastic wrapping from Dream Chaser after it arrives at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in southern California. Credit: NASA
A Sierra Nevada employee removes plastic wrapping from Dream Chaser after it arrives at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in southern California. Credit: NASA

Sierra Nevada, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the Boeing Co. are all receiving NASA funding under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative that is intended to restart flights from American soil into low-Earth orbit.

For Sierra Nevada, the company aims to launch its mini shuttle aboard an Atlas V rocket and then, like the shuttle, come back to Earth on a runway. SpaceX and Boeing are taking a different path — making spacecraft capable of launching on the Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (respectively) and then coming home under a parachute.

There’s still some questions about when the program will start, though. In media reports, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said funding threats for NASA’s 2014 request are imperiling the current commercial crew target of 2017.

NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and three others recently took part in approach and landing simulations of the Dream Chaser at Langley Research Center in Hampton. Check out the video below.

Private Test Pilots to Fly 1st Commercial Crewed Space Flights for NASA

[/caption]

Image Caption: Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

Commercial test pilots, not NASA astronauts, will fly the first crewed missions that NASA hopes will at last restore America’s capability to blast humans to Earth orbit from American soil – perhaps as early as 2015 – which was totally lost following the forced shuttle shutdown.

At a news briefing this week, NASA managers at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) said the agency is implementing a new way of doing business in human spaceflight and purposely wants private companies to assume the flight risk first with their crews before exposing NASA crews as a revolutionary new flight requirement. Both NASA and the companies strongly emphasized that there will be no shortcuts to flying safe.

A trio of American aerospace firms – Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp – are leading the charge to develop and launch the new commercially built human-rated spacecraft that will launch Americans to LEO atop American rockets from American bases.

The goal is to ensure the nation has safe, reliable and affordable crew transportation systems for low-Earth orbit (LEO) and International Space Station (ISS) missions around the middle of this decade.

The test launch schedule hinges completely on scarce Federal dollars from NASA for which there is no guarantee in the current tough fiscal environment.

The three companies are working with NASA in a public-private partnership using a combination of NASA seed money and company funds. Each company was awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap, program, the third in a series of contracts aimed at kick starting the development of the so-called private sector ‘space taxis’ to fly astronauts to and from the ISS.

MTF10-0014-01

Caption: Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS

The combined value of NASA’s Phase 1 CCiCap contracts is about $1.1 Billion and runs through March 2014 said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. Phase 2 contract awards will follow and eventually lead to the actual flight units after a down selection to one or more of the companies, depending on NASA’s approved budget.

Since the premature retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, US astronauts have been 100% reliant on the Russians to hitch a ride to the ISS – at a price tag of over $60 Million per seat. This is taking place while American aerospace workers sit on the unemployment line and American expertise and billions of dollars of hi-tech space hardware rots away or sits idly by with each passing day.

Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp seek to go where no private company has gone before – to low Earth orbit with their private sector manned spacecraft. And representatives from all three told reporters they are all eager to move forward.

All three commercial vehicles – the Boeing CST-100; SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser – are designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts and remain docked at the ISS for more than 6 months.

“For well over a year now, since Atlantis [flew the last space shuttle mission], the United States of America no longer has the capability to launch people into space. And that’s something that we are not happy about,” said Garrett Reisman, a former space shuttle astronaut who is now the SpaceX Commercial Crew project manager leading their development effort. “We’re very proud to be part of the group that’s going to do something about that and get Americans back into space.”

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Caption: Blastoff of SpaceX Cargo Dragon atop Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May, 22, 2012, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We are the emotional successors to the shuttle,” said Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman. “Our target was to repatriate that industry back to the United States, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Sierra Nevada is developing the winged Dream Chaser, a mini-shuttle that launches atop an Atlas V rocket and lands on a runway like the shuttle. Boeing and SpaceX are building capsules that will launch atop Atlas V and Falcon 9 rockets, respectively, and then land by parachute like the Russian Soyuz capsule.

SpaceX appears to be leading the pack using a man-rated version of their Dragon capsule which has already docked twice to the ISS on critical cargo delivery missions during 2012. From the start, the SpaceX Dragon was built to meet the specification ratings requirements for a human crew.

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Caption: Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 25, 2012 for grapple and berthing . Photo: NASA

Reisman said the first manned Dragon test flight with SpaceX test pilots could be launched in mid 2015. A flight to the ISS could take place by late 2015. Leading up to that in April 2014, SpaceX is planning to carry out an unmanned in-flight abort test to simulate and test a worst case scenario “at the worst possible moment.”

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day orbital test flight of their CST-100 capsule during 2016, said John Mulholland, the Boeing Commercial Programs Space Exploration vice president and program manager. Mulholland added that Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight by Atlantis, is leading the flight test effort.

Boeing has leased one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility hangers (OPF-3) at KSC. Mulholland told me that Boeing will ‘cut metal’ soon. “Our first piece of flight design hardware will be delivered to KSC and OPF-3 within 5 months.”

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Caption: Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer

Sierra Nevada plans to start atmospheric drop tests of an engineering test article of the Dream Chaser from a carrier aircraft in the next few months in an autonomous mode. The test article is a full sized vehicle.

“It’s not outfitted for orbital flight; it is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests,” Sirangelo told me. “The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight.”

Now to the issue of using commercial space test pilots in place of NASA astronauts on the initial test flights.

At the briefing, Reisman stated, “We were told that because this would be part of the development and prior to final certification that we were not allowed, legally, to use NASA astronauts to be part of that test pilot crew.”

So I asked NASA’s Ed Mango, “Why are NASA astronauts not allowed on the initial commercial test flights?”

Mango replied that NASA wants to implement the model adopted by the military wherein the commercial company assumes the initial risk before handing the airplanes to the government.

“We would like them to get to a point where they’re ready to put their crew on their vehicle at their risk,” said Mango. “And so it changes the dynamic a little bit. Normally under a contract, the contractor comes forward and says he’s ready to go fly but it’s a NASA individual that’s going to sit on the rocket, so it becomes a NASA risk.

“What we did is we flipped it around under iCAP. It’s not what we’re going to do long term under phase two, but we flipped it around under iCAP and said we want to know when you’re ready to fly your crew and put your people at risk. And that then becomes something that we’re able to evaluate.”

“In the end all our partners want to fly safe. They’re not going to take any shortcuts on flying safe,” he elaborated. “All of us have the same initiative and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting on top of the vehicle. It’s a person, and that person needs to fly safely and get back home to their families. That’s the mission of all our folks and our partners – to go back home and see their family.”

Given the nations fiscal difficulties and lack of bipartisan cooperation there is no guarantee that NASA will receive the budget it needs to keep the commercial crew program on track.

Indeed, the Obama Administrations budget request for commercial crew has been repeatedly slashed by the US Congress to only half the request in the past two years. These huge funding cuts have already forced a multi-year delay in the inaugural test flights and increased the time span that the US has no choice but to pay Russia to launch US astronauts to the ISS.

“The budget is going to be an extremely challenging topic, not only for this program but for all NASA programs,” said Phil McAlister, NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development director.

NASA is pursuing a dual track approach in reviving NASA’s human spaceflight program. The much larger Orion crew capsule is simultaneously being developed to launch atop the new SLS super rocket and carry astronauts back to the Moon by 2021 and then farther into deep space to Asteroids and one day hopefully Mars.

Ken Kremer

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Caption: Dream Chaser awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket