Sierra Nevada Corp. Building Space Industry Around “Dream Chaser”

4/3/13Follow @Rachelsapin

This year, the first completed Dream Chaser test vehicle is slated to undergo its first unmanned drop-flight tests from 12,000 feet at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California. The Dream Chaser is the only winged spacecraft still in NASA’s commercial crew program competition, and the only space plane in development that will carry humans to space.

The spacecraft is the work of Louisville, CO-based Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems, the prime contractor and owner of the vehicle that will potentially taxi NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA has so far invested $348.1 million in the Dream Chaser, which the private company aims to have ready by 2016. The funding is a feat in light of looming defense budget cuts; NASA spending on space projects is predicted to flatline for years to come.

Mark Sirangelo, who heads the Dream Chaser program as well as SNC’s space division, is well aware of this new space economy. Although enthusiastic about the company’s work with NASA, he doesn’t see the government entity as the end-all, be-all for the Dream Chaser. “We’re developing this not just for the space station, but so we can do work in low-earth orbit,” he says.

SNC is a global leader in small satellite production, an industry that has seen its profits soar in Colorado with the widespread implementation of GPS technology. Fixing satellites in orbit is just one of a myriad of commercial uses Sirangelo envisions for the Dream Chaser going forward.

“We’re trying to find the sweet spot between advanced and practical technology,” he says of the company’s overall goals.

The space plane, which will be roughly 12 meters long with a wingspan of 10 meters, builds on NASA’s experimental HL-20 design, while the other two competing models in development by SpaceX and Boeing are capsule designs. “Having wings and motors allows us to fly around and do things,” Sirangelo says. “Capsules can’t do that.”

Once completed, the Dream Chaser will have a reusable lifting body that can carry up to seven crew plus cargo to and from the International Space Station. It will be launched vertically from a United Launch Alliance rocket (whose headquarters are based in Centennial, CO), and will also be the only competitor capable of landing on a runway like an airplane upon its return to earth.

A report released by The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program in February described Colorado’s aerospace industry as an outsized economic driver, contributing $8.7 billion to the state’s economy. Colorado has the second largest space economy in the nation, with nearly three-quarters of its 66,000 aerospace workers employed by private companies. The report also described Colorado’s industry cluster as one of the most diverse, from the concentration of large military bases operating in Colorado Springs to the leading commercial providers of high-resolution satellite imagery like DigitalGlobe, located along the Front Range. This diversification helped Colorado surpass … Next Page »

Rachel Sapin is a freelance journalist based in Denver. She produces stories on the economy, the environment, and culture. Follow @Rachelsapin

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