Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) reached another milestone last week in its efforts to become the next commercial company to venture into space and provide NASA crew transport capabilities to low-Earth orbit, or “LEO” as it is more commonly called. The NewSpace firm successfully completed a “captive carry” flight test of a full scale version of their Dream Chaser spacecraft in the skies over the Rocky Mountains of Jefferson County, Colorado last week.
The full-scale flight test, conducted on May 29, 2012, was the first of the company’s Dream Chaser Space System’s flight test program. The vehicle was carried under an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter to assess the vehicle’s aerodynamic flight performance, laying the foundation for additional flight tests to take place in the future. Data from the test will help SNC to evaluate and prove hardware, facilities, and ground operations in preparation for an autonomous Approach and Landing Test, or ALT, later this summer at Edwards Air Force Base in California in cooperation with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.
“The successful Captive Carry flight test of the Dream Chaser full scale flight vehicle marks the beginning of SNC’s flight test program; a program that culminates in crewed missions to the International Space Station for NASA,” said five-time Space Shuttle Commander and Pilot Steve Lindsey, who joined Sierra Nevada Corporation in 2011 to run the company’s Dream Chaser flight operations.
Dream Chaser has been described by many as a “mini space shuttle”, designed to carry as many as seven astronauts into LEO. It is the only spacecraft under the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) that is winged and designed to land on a conventional runway. It is expected that the Dream Chaser will launch on a human-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas-V 402 rocket and return to Earth in much the same way as the space shuttle did. Like NASA’s shuttle, Dream Chaser will be designed to glide through the atmosphere, but will be able to land on any runway capable of handling commercial air traffic. Sierra Nevada plans on building a fleet of Dream Chaser vehicles.
“This is a very positive success for the Dream Chaser team and their innovative approach,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager. “I applaud and encourage the designers and engineers to continue their efforts in meeting the objectives of the rest of their CCDev2 milestones.”
To date, Sierra Nevada has completed all CCDev milestones on schedule, stating in a press release last February that they were “on time and on budget.” The company conducted three successful test firings of a single hybrid rocket motor in one day in October 2010. Other important milestones accomplished thus far include a System Requirements Review, a new cockpit simulator, and completion of their functional Vehicle Avionics Integration Laboratory (VAIL) – which will be used to test Dream Chaser computers and electronics in simulated space mission scenarios for developmental testing, and later will be used as a key tool for Dream Chaser certification. Wind tunnel testing of a full scale model Dream Chaser vehicle was completed successfully in late April, leading to their full scale flight test last week.
VIDEO: SNC Dream Chaser Captive Carry Flight Test. Video Credit: SNCspacesystems
Additional milestones which led up to last week’s successful flight test included performance evaluation of the main landing gear, interface tests to demonstrate the release mechanism between the test vehicle and the helicopter which flew it, and a thorough flight test readiness review by SNC and NASA officials. The separation system compatibility between Dream Chaser and its future Atlas-V rocket launch vehicle has also successfully been evaluated.
“The success of the Dream Chaser Program is a result of the hard work of an expansive team, which now includes over twelve industrial partners, seven NASA centers, and three universities, all representing more than twenty-five states,” said Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “I would like to thank them, our terrific SNC employees, as well as the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and Erickson Air-Crane for their contributions to the success of this test. It is through partnerships like these that Dream Chaser continues on the path to filling the crew transportation capabilities lost with the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program.”
Sierra Nevada is one of several companies currently competing to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities in cooperation with NASA – with the goal of achieving safe, reliable, and cost effective access to and from LEO and the International Space Station (ISS). Eventually, NASA intends on choosing at least two providers to deliver crews to the ISS. The other companies currently designing both spacecraft and launch vehicles to accomplish these goals – and not necessarily under the CCDev2 program – include Blue Origin, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Alliant Techsystems (ATK), and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). SpaceX has earned a place at the top of the list of competitors NASA will use to carry out operational supply missions to the ISS, having launched their Dragon spacecraft into LEO twice – most recently delivering supplies to the ISS and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California after flying a nearly flawless demonstration mission last month.