The private Dream Chaser crew vehicle, aiming to launch U.S. astronauts back to space, will “resume test flights this fall with sophisticated orbital software” while simultaneously pushing forward with an ambitious “assembly program” of the orbital space plane vehicle destined for the maiden liftoff in 2016, Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems, told AmericaSpace in an exclusive, one-on-one interview about their human spaceflight efforts to build an efficient astronaut transporter for NASA.
“We are focused on being ready to launch in November 2016. We have a launch slot [reserved with United Launch Alliance for the Atlas V rocket],” Sirangelo said.
“We have begun the build of the first Dream Chaser orbital vehicle!”
Dream Chaser is a reusable manned space plane being developed by SNC to restore America’s capability to ferry American astronauts from American soil to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS), with funding from the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
We lost the ability to launch humans when the shuttle program ended three years ago. And Mark Sirangelo and the entire SNC team, spread across 30 U.S. states, are on a mission to right that with Dream Chaser.
“We think it’s about time that we get an American built vehicle launching from America to take U.S. astronauts to space. We feel like we are carrying the torch forward from the 135 shuttle flights and bringing the history of NASA along with us as we do this,” Sirangelo emphasized.
Three American aerospace firms—Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser, Boeing with CST-100, and SpaceX with Dragon V2—are vying for NASA’s multi-billion dollar contracts to build private sector manned spaceships to fly astronauts to the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership.
So right now is an exciting time at Sierra Nevada, as we discussed the status of their activities boldly moving full speed ahead with development, flight test, and manufacturing efforts to get the winged Dream Chaser spaceship ready for the historic 2016 launch to orbit.
In fact SNC may leapfrog ahead of its competitors in the high stakes NASA competition to win the new commercial crew race to space by starting the “assembly of the orbital vehicle,” as well as checking out that vehicle’s “sophisticated flight software a full year ahead of schedule” via critical landing test flights starting in the near term, which will be carried out in both unmanned and manned modes.
“It’s very exciting. We have two Dream Chaser vehicles that are now in development,” Sirangelo said. “Atmospheric flight tests will begin later this year.”
This writer asked Sirangelo to describe the program ahead for both vehicles, which is essentially a mini-shuttle about one-third the size of NASA’s now retired space shuttle orbiters:
“One is the atmospheric flight test vehicle [ATV] which is essentially our version of the ‘Enterprise’ shuttle. That’s where we are doing all the tests making sure the vehicle can conduct its flight maneuvers, its landing maneuvers.”
The “Enterprise” was the full-scale shuttle pathfinder orbiter used by NASA to conduct critical approach and landing tests back in the 1970s to pave the way for the maiden flight by the “Columbia” orbiter in April 1981.
“The atmospheric flight test vehicle is due to start the second phase of its flight testing later this year,” Sirangelo elaborated.
“And secondly we have begun the build of the first orbital vehicle that will be on the first flight in November 2016. That has now been under work for about five months. And we have started delivering the first major pieces of that.”
“So it’s very exciting. We now have two vehicles. One flying and one going into its assembly stage. So it’s pretty fun.”
The Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada’s entry into NASA’s high-priority Commercial Crew effort, aimed at fostering the development of a safe and reliable, next-generation crewed vehicle to replace the space shuttle after its forced retirement following the final mission of STS-135 in July 2011.
Since then, all American astronauts’ only ride to the ISS has been aboard the cramped Russian Soyuz capsule and at a cost now exceeding $70 million per seat under the latest cooperative agreement between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
During 2013, SNC conducted a series of high-altitude captive carry tests, as well as a single free flight drop test from a helicopter in October that year with Dream Chaser’s engineering test vehicle (ETV).
The ETV is now undergoing significant modifications for use as the atmospheric test vehicle (ATV) that will incorporate and test new, advanced flight software that will be used in the actual orbital vehicle two years from now.
What changes are being made to convert the ETV used for the drop test into the ATV, and what is the significance? This writer asked.
“The vehicle used in the drop test [in 2013] is being upgraded so it can fly higher and faster,” Sirangelo explained.
“On the [ATV] upgrades we are doing two main things. First, we are starting to bring on some of the software that we would use in orbit, which is a big move forward. So [in the ATV] we will essentially be flying with our orbital flight software. Secondly we will eventually have it flown with pilots.”
“So right now it’s essentially an autonomous vehicle. Then we will be bringing on board piloted capability for later in the test program.”
When and where will the new series of drop tests begin, and when will it fly piloted?
“The next set of tests, which will be autonomous, will begin later this year,” Siranglo stated. An exact timeframe has not been set yet.
“They will be conducted at Edwards Air Force Base and the NASA Armstrong Flight Center in California.”
“The first piloted tests will be done early next year .”
How many pilots will be onboard when you reach that stage?
“One pilot. The vehicle is fully autonomous and fully piloted. So it will be thoroughly tested without a pilot first. Then we will put a pilot in there to conduct some additional emergency maneuvers. So the pilot will have the autonomous system as a backup as well,” Sirangelo elaborated.
About how many tests are foreseen, manned and unmanned?
“Well, it’s not really about a number. Its more about getting the results so we can finish [the CCiCAP milestones for NASA]. And so we are satisfied with the results.”
“It’s likely to be about three to six flights, something like that.”
How will the atmospheric drop tests be conducted?
“The next set of tests will be conducted from a high altitude helicopter, like we did the last set. We are still working to determine how we will conduct the higher altitude tests and are looking at a number of potential vehicles,” Sirangelo stated.
Please discuss the test results and lessons learned from the initial free flight drop test flight conducted in October 2013. The vehicle was released by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter from an altitude of over 12,000 feet and glided autonomously for about a minute before touchdown on the Mojave desert landing strip on runway 22L at Edwards. The flight was marred at the very end when the Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle skidded off the runway when its left landing gear failed to deploy at the last second during touchdown.
“Well the drop test actually worked out better than what we thought. We had about 40 tests that we were tracking and we got the results from all 40 of them. In part because we had actually put instruments on the vehicle that were necessary to do that and get the data, even though we weren’t really trying to get them [all 40] done in one test.”
“We hadn’t actually planned to get all those results in one test. But we wound up getting such good data that NASA approved us on all the initial tests that we were supposed to do. So it was actually pretty successful,” he said.
The drop tests are among the 15 milestones SNC must complete to receive continued funding under NASA’s CCiCAP award, valued at $227 million. NASA approved the October 2013 free flight drop test and trajectory data results as Milestone 4a.
SNC has now fulfilled virtually all of its contracted commercial crew milestones and is nearing the end of the CCiCAP program.
Describe the CCiCAP milestones left to complete and the extension you requested in order to make a significant programmatic advance.
“We are 92 percent done with the CCiCAP milestones for NASA. We have one more CCiCAP milestone left that will be done in the next couple of weeks called Milestone 15. So we have another flight test, the drop test, we’re doing later this Fall that will finish it out,” Sirangelo said.
“So we are pretty much finished and at the end of the [CCiCAP] program.”
“For the drop test milestone there were two parts. We had proven the data part. What we actually asked for was an extension on the second piece, on the flight test, so we can upgrade the vehicle to incorporate some additional work on it which is effectively the orbital flight software.”
“It may sound small, but it’s actually a ‘big deal’ and really important to the program.”
“So we will actually be testing the software for orbit for the [Nov. 2016] orbital flight—about one year sooner than otherwise expected.”
“So we pushed the drop test flight back a little bit. But we are accelerating the software development!”
“We wanted to get something more and do another flight test, but do it with the upgraded software. We wanted to upgrade the software. That was not part of the original CCiCAP program!”
“It’s something we added on our own. And it was a nice compromise between us and NASA.”
“So we took a little bit of a delay [in completing Milestone 15]. But the flight will be much more sophisticated!” Sirangelo explained.
So that orbital software upgrade should help you significantly in being ready on time for your targeted orbital flight in November 2016?
“Yes, that’s quite right!”
“So yes, the point is that while these interim milestones are important, the really big and important one is to be ready to go in November 2016.”
“And that’s what we are focused in on. Making sure we are ‘flight ready on time’. This software work now will enable us to cut time off that launch schedule which is far more important to us.”
So is November 2016 definitely your target orbital launch date for Dream Chaser?
“Yes! We bought the rocket. We put an initial deposit on it and as you get closer to launch you put up more money.”
“So, we have a launch slot! And that’s really important. Because without a slot, you can’t fly even if you have a rocket.”
NASA officials have stated they expect to award the next round of commercial crew contracts, dubbed Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), to one or more companies for funding, likely around September.
By incorporating orbital flight software in the drop tests this fall, SNC seeks to accelerate the development program toward accomplishing the orbital flight test. Indeed SNC’s launch date is slightly ahead of the January 2017 unmanned orbital flight test announced by Boeing. Read this writer’s recent interviews with astronaut Chris Ferguson here and here. SpaceX has spoken of conducting a flight test sometime in 2016, but has not yet specified an exact date.
SNC is also the first of the three commercial crew competitors to start construction of the actual flight-worthy orbital vehicle, going to space in just over two years.
What are the details about the 2016 launch? International partners? And what’s the outlook if no NASA contract? Tune in soon for part 2 of this interview with SNC VP Mark Sirangelo.
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