Dream Chaser Reaches Edwards AFB to Prove It Has “The Right Stuff”

5/21/13Follow @MichaelXBD

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The journey into space for a potentially breakthrough vehicle begins with a nearly 1,000-mile trip to Edwards Air Force Base—on the back of a flatbed truck, wrapped in plastic.

At least that’s the case for the Dream Chaser, the space vehicle Sierra Nevada Corp. is building in Louisville, CO. The company delivered a test version of the Dream Chaser to NASA this week, and it arrived at the air force base Wednesday on the back of a flatbed truck.

The vehicle is part of NASA’s effort to support private companies in their attempts to develop new vehicles to carry astronauts into orbit and the International Space Station now that the Space Shuttle has been retired.

Sierra Nevada Corp. has signed contracts totaling more than $212 million with NASA to develop the spacecraft and will receive the money if it hits certain performance milestones.

SNC executives liken Dream Chaser to the Space Shuttle’s little brother, and it resembles a miniature version of the recently retired shuttle. Like the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser will take off on a rocket, glide during reentry, and land on a runway. Both vehicles can carry up to seven and are reusable.

The upcoming tests will take place at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The facilities are renowned as the proving ground for America’s top experimental planes and spacecraft. It’s a legacy that goes back to Chuck Yeager’s first supersonic flight in 1947.

SNC has grand ambitions and wants the vehicle to become NASA’s primary crewed vehicle. Trips on the Dream Chaser also could be sold to foreign countries and private firms. But first, it will have to prove itself at Dryden.

“NASA Dryden has always played a vital role in the testing of American flight vehicles,” SNC Space Systems head Mark Sirangelo said in a release. “As the Dream Chaser program takes flight, this unique opportunity to conduct our tests at the same location as the Space Shuttle began its flight brings great pride to our team. We are one step closer to returning U.S. astronauts on a U.S. vehicle to the International Space Station and in doing so continuing the long-standing and proud legacy that was the Space Shuttle program.”

According to a NASA release, the tests in this round do not sound particularly dramatic, but they do include the first free-flight test. In the other trials, a truck will tow the craft down a runway to validate performance of the nose strut, brakes, and tires. A helicopter will lift the vehicle airborne on a captive-carry flight to examine the loads it will encounter during flight. The free flight will test Dream Chaser’s aerodynamics through landing.

Passing the test will be crucial, though.

“This will be the first full-scale flight test of the Dream Chaser lifting body and will demonstrate the unique capability of our spacecraft to land on a runway,” SNC vice president of space exploration Jim Voss said. “This is a huge step forward for the SNC and NASA teams towards providing our nation with safe and reliable transportation to the International Space Station.”

A prototype of the Dream Chaser passed its first airborne test last year, when a helicopter carried it over Boulder during another captive-carry test. The vehicle did not land on its own.

Three private groups are developing manned spacecraft for NASA as part of its Commercial Crew Development program. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon might be the best known and farthest along. An unmanned version already is making cargo flights to the space station.

Boeing (NYSE: BA) is developing the third project, named the CST-1000.

SpaceX and Boeing’s vehicles are both capsules that would return to earth by parachute.

The competition could be steep, and SNC, a privately owned aerospace company headquartered in Sparks, NV, is much smaller and less well known than its competitors. It does have a powerful partner in Lockheed Martin, which is building the Dream Chaser’s composite structure. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. is based in Littleton, which is south of Denver.

Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) also is developing a crewed space capsule, named the Orion, but it is part of a different NASA program and will have a different mission.

Whatever the Dream Chaser’s future holds, it already has an interesting past.

According to SNC and NASA, concept plans for the vehicle that evolved into the Dream Chaser were reverse engineered from a vehicle developed by the Soviet Union. An Australian patrol plan captured pictures of the Soviet vehicle on a test flight, and the pictures made their way to the U.S. intelligence and spaceflight community.

The Sierra Nevada Corp. team, which includes former astronauts and self-proclaimed children of the space race, hasn’t been shy about wanting to claim a place in the U.S.’s history of space exploration and playing up the patriotism angle. The U.S. currently sends astronauts up on Russian flights and will reportedly pay more than $420 million for flights through 2017.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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