Sierra Nevada welcomes Lockheed Martin to Dream Chaser project

CBS News

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. is joining Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser commercial manned spacecraft program, bringing the aerospace giant's expertise in flight certification and composites manufacturing to the private-sector initiative, company officials announced Wednesday.

Sierra Nevada is competing with Space Technologies Corp. and Boeing to develop a new generation of commercial space taxis that NASA envisions hiring to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada's Dreamchaser spaceplane is the only winged spacecraft in a NASA competition to develop a commercial manned vehicle to service the space station. (Credit: Sierra Nevada)
Unlike its rivals, which are designing wingless capsules that initially, at least, would make parachute descents to ocean splashdowns, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is a winged lifting body that would launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket and re-enter the atmosphere much like a space shuttle, gliding to a runway landing.

The spacecraft can be launched manned, carrying up to seven astronauts, or unmanned, loaded with cargo, scientific experiments or both.

The contract announced today will bring Lockheed Martin's long experience in flight certification requirements to the Dream Chaser program and add manufacturing capability at Lockheed Martin's Michoud, La., plant where the company once built space shuttle external tanks.

"There's so much depth within the Lockheed Martin organization that we haven't been able to access," said Sierra Nevada Vice President Mark Sirangelo, leader of the Dream Chaser project. "We asked ourselves the question, how can we do that?

"And that has led to the beginning of a very exciting and very expansive relationship where Lockheed has joined our Dream Chaser team as an exclusive partner to help us with the certification, which is how do we get this vehicle really fit to fly safely?"

The certification work will cover "the things that are going to be necessary to fly human beings to orbit on a system that's supposed to be something that flies frequently," Sirangelo told reporters. "We're going to combine our knowledge ... We think this is a terrific thing, not only for us and our program, but for NASA."

The value of the contract was not revealed.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for NASA's Orion spacecraft, a manned capsule originally intended for the Bush administration's Constellation moon program. NASA now plans to use Orion and a new heavy-lift booster for government-directed deep space voyages to a variety of targets.

The commercial manned spacecraft initiative is a bid by the Obama administration to kick-start development of private-sector vehicles that can take over more routine flights to and from low-Earth orbit.

Last August, NASA announced that Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada had been selected to continue spacecraft development work under the agency's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap. Boeing's contract was valued at up to $460 million, SpaceX won a contract worth up to $440 million while Sierra Nevada was awarded $212.5 million.

Sirangelo said the Dream Chaser spacecraft will be fully reusable and relatively inexpensive to operate. Just as important, he said, it can be flown manned or unmanned to meet a wide variety of mission objectives.

"We view this as a transportation system to low earth orbit," he said. "For example, the vehicle in a long duration capacity unmanned could act as a science platform. There is the potential for the vehicle to do servicing in space, satellite servicing or other types of servicing."

"If there are other destinations, other than the space station, that are built, we could provide transportation. We also have the capability to bring people up to expand the envelope for what would currently be a very burgeoning, young, suborbital tourist market for those people who want to go to the next level."

Jim Voss, a former shuttle and space station astronaut who now serves as vice president of Sierra Nevada's Space Exploration Systems, said an engineering test version of the Dream Chaser will be flown to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in two weeks for the start of initial helicopter drop tests in about six weeks.

The unmanned test vehicle "will be released from a helicopter and it will fly down and land autonomously on a runway and we'll gather the aerodynamic data we need to complete our aerodynamic database for the Dream Chaser," Voss said.