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 traditional space stalwarts like Florida, where the industry felt a larger jolt from NASA shutting down U.S. space launch centers in 2011.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is a relatively recent addition to Colorado’s space community. It acquired both MicroSat Systems (a Littleton, CO-based leader in the small satellite market) and Louisville-based SpaceDev in 2008, and afterwards formed a space systems business area in Colorado. The company has since been recognized as one of the fastest-growing private space entities in the nation.

Around a thousand of SNC’s 2,500 employees are located in Colorado, with 150 currently working on the Dream Chaser. “It’s a good state to do business in,” Sirangelo says. “It’s easy to attract people here, and the leadership is approachable. Very few people hate Colorado.” These were among the reasons Sirangelo, then CEO of SpaceDev, decided to move the company’s space headquarters from Poway, CA, to Louisville six years ago.

Defense contracts may still account for most of SNC’s revenue, but direct government clients make up only a third of the company’s customer base. According to Sirangelo, the rest of its customers are private companies like Lockheed Martin that sell directly to the government or commercial companies working in adjacent markets.

In January, Sierra Nevada Corp. chose Lockheed as its exclusive partner on the NASA Certification Products Contract process for the Dream Chaser. “It’s pretty intuitive when you think about it,” Sirangelo says. “Here’s a company that’s 25 miles away from us that spent years fixing similar problems.” He believes SNC will benefit from Lockheed’s experience as a heritage space provider and from what it has learned about human spaceflight from building the deep-space Orion capsule for NASA.

Since the deal, Sirangelo has been lauded in Colorado for SNC’s collaborative approach. “Having Sierra Nevada in our backyard is great,” says Vicky Lea, aviation and aerospace industry manager at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “They exemplify new space and old space—they straddle both. ”

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, agrees. “It’s a fascinating example of a new space company that connects folks with more traditional space, yet is getting involved in new lines of business that will help create new opportunities in the industry,” he says.

Sirangelo’s passion for Colorado to become a leading cluster for private and human spaceflight is something Joe Tanner, a senior instructor in CU-Boulder’s aerospace department, appreciates.

“What they’re trying to do is not easy,” says Tanner, a former NASA astronaut who currently works with Sierra Nevada Corp. and graduate students on the Dream Chaser. “You have to love space exploration itself over profit. Sierra Nevada, bless their hearts, has a vision to advance U.S. human spaceflight, and they’re laying their company on the line.”

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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