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SNC Dream Chaser space plane takes shape for NASA's 2021 mission

Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems showed off the body of its first Dream Chaser space plane in Louisville on Tuesday, calling it the most advanced composite-material structure ever assembled for space.

The spacecraft, which NASA has hired to ferry cargo and science experiments to and from the International Space Station, arrived Friday from being manufactured in Texas.

Now the work putting on the spacecraft’s wings, landing gear, flight computers, thermal protection tiles and other pieces begins to ready the spaceship for its first ISS resupply mission in 2021.

“It’s all about building this thing and getting to flight,” said Steve Lindsey, SNC Space Systems vice president of space exploration systems.

The company employs 800 people in Louisville, the home base for Dream Chaser’s creation and operations.

The 30-foot, shoe-shaped brown body weighs only 2,400 pounds, made in a single piece of molded composite material without a single bolt or screw. In December and January, the composite wings for the craft are slated to be delivered.

Three divisions of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT) teamed up to manufacture the structure for SNC Space.

Some heat-shielding composites were made at Lockheed Martin Space’s spacecraft manufacturing facility at NASA’s Michoud site in New Orleans. Lockheed Martin produced curved pieces and finished the Dream Chaser structure at the company’s F-35 fighter jet plant in Fort Worth, Texas, which has tooling and autoclave ovens large enough to make and then bake a spacecraft. Dream Chaser’s structural core included some technical help from Lockheed’s Skunkworks department.

Combining Lockheed Martin’s composite manufacturing expertise with SNC Space’s designs will result in a spacecraft that weighs 24,000 pounds and is expected to fly into orbit 15 times or more.

Lockheed is in discussions with SNC Space now about building a second Dream Chaser body, said Lisa Callahan.

SNC Space, a division of privately-held Sierra Nevada Corp., is contracted by NASA to fly six cargo mission to the ISS between 2021 and 2024, part of a larger multi-billion dollar program services the space research station. The value SNC Space Systems’ contract is yet to be determined.

NASA selected Dream Chaser in 2016 for uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and OrbitalATK, now part of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, also fly cargo to the space station for NASA.

SNC has invested more than $1 billion in Dream Chaser’s development over several years. It has forged agreements with the United Nations, Japan and other nations for potential future uses of the spacecraft beyond NASA cargo missions.

The fully assembled Dream Chaser will fly autonomously, bringing itself back through the atmosphere to land on a commercial-sized runway. The spacecraft is built to fly 15 times or more.

Dream Chaser will launch to ISS on a Vulcan rocket made by Centennial-based United Launch Alliance. Unlike NASA’s space shuttles, though, it will launch at the top of the rocket, protected by a fairing and where there won’t be a risk of falling debris during liftoff that plagued the shuttles.

The Dream Chaser, with its 15-foot cargo module, will be able to carry 12,000 pounds to and from ISS, the largest return payload of the spacecraft flying cargo for NASA.

Landing on a runway to brin4g back science experiments for immediate retrieval is of tremendous importance to NASA, said Keith Shireman, NASA’s ISS program manager.

Last week, the Soyuz capsule that returned from the ISS carried blood samples NASA wanted to analyze for research within 48 hours, Shireman said, but the planes and helicopters relaying the samples from the remote landing site in Kazakhstan to the U.S. experienced delays.

“We missed by about five hours,” he said. “With Dream Chaser, it lands just two or three miles from where the scientists are.”

It’s a capability NASA hasn’t had since the agency retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011. And because Dream Chaser carries only non-toxic fuels, there won’t be the on-the-ground decontamination waits to retrieve ISS sample, SNC says.

Dream Chaser is much smaller than the 220,000-pound, 122-foot-long space shuttles. It’s built to have the benefits of a reusable plane without some of the bulky shuttle’s drawbacks, said John Curry, program director for SNC Space’s ISS cargo resupply missions.

SNC Space’s craft has no crew compartment, no windows and no cockpit. It’s a robotic space plane designed to fly itself and its payloads back to earth.

About a quarter of the 12,000 pounds it will able to fly back will be in a pressure-control cargo container designed to protect science projects and other sensitive material, and the remaining 8,000 pounds will be for trash and ISS equipment.

NASA has never been able to bring back so much at once, which is helpful, Curry said.

“People don’t realize about the ISS, it’s a house. Six people live there,” said Curry, who once directed shuttle flights to the Mir space station for NASA. “There’s a lot of stuff that piles up.”

SNC Space is developing a version of the Dream Chaser to fly a crew of four astronauts one day, too. That will be a different ship, 85% of which will be common to the Dream Chaser design the company will improve on under its cargo contract for NASA, he said.

Greg Avery
Denver Business Journal