Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Dream Chaser Space Plane Program Off the Ground 

The rules of the game are changing. Space exploration, once a federally funded, government led endeavor, is becoming privatized. Testimony before Congress by Dream Chaser prime contractor, Sierra Nevada Corporation, details progress, cites long term economic benefits.

The economic payback of space exploration has been well documented. As Nature, the British science journal dryly commented in a 1992 article, “The economic benefits of NASA's programs are greater than generally realized. The main beneficiaries (the American public) may not even realize the source of their good fortune. . .”

The Coalition for Space Exploration, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping ensure the U.S. remains the leader in space science and technology, puts it this way, “The exploration of space is an engine for creation. It sparks high-tech and high-paying jobs. It captures the pulse of our planet and its complicated climate. It spurs technological innovation that enhances daily life, from advances in aviation to medical devices that help save lives. It is also a key engine for igniting interest in youth to study science, technology and math. Dollars spent on space exploration don’t get blasted into Earth orbit. Everyone on Earth is a beneficiary of space exploration – robotic and human – with a global return on investment that is truly immeasurable.”

The manufacturing sector is certainly one of those beneficiaries. But the rules of the game are changing. Space exploration, once a federally funded, government led endeavor, is becoming privatized. Which is why we found some recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology quite fascinating.

Realizing the Dream
One of the presenters at the hearing was Steven Lindsey, a retired USAF Colonel and the Director, Flight Operations, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Sparks, Nevada.

Lindsey, former chief of the NASA Astronaut Office, was in Washington D.C. to tell the assembled pols about SNC’s Dream Chaser Space System and the future of the low earth orbit commercial market.

For the past six years, the SNC team has been developing the supporting technologies and expertise needed to support the spacecraft. Included are hybrid propulsion systems, complex composite structures, airframe design, spacecraft components, adapter rings, navigation and control, life support, and integrated system design and testing capabilities.

SNC is not working in a vacuum. Among its partners are the Boeing Experimental Systems Group, United Launch Alliance, Aerojet, NASA’s Langley Research Center (especially skilled in analysis and modeling), Adam Works, the University of Colorado, and many more vendors and institutions.

The Dream Chaser design evolved from the NASA Langley HL-20, which in turn was derived from the Russian BOR-4 test vehicle that flew four orbital flights. During its decade-long development of the HL-20, NASA Langley conducted more than 1,200 wind tunnel tests and performed thousands of piloted simulations in order to refine the vehicle’s aerodynamics, performance and controls. SNC has consolidated and built upon the treasure trove of HL-20 test data, allowing the company to design a low orbit, reusable spacecraft tailored to meet NASA’s requirements.

The space plane is a piloted lifting body design accommodating two to seven persons and pressurized cargo. Dream Chaser will be launched using the venerable Atlas V 402 booster rocket. Initially the vehicle will boosted into low orbit from the Kennedy Space Center and land at the Shuttle Landing facility. However, Dream Chaser is designed to land on any 10,000 foot runway.

Once the mission is over, the space plane is almost entirely reusable except for some propulsion system components and its chemical batteries.

On Track, Under Budget

So far, Lindsey told the committee, the program has completed a number of milestones on time and, will wonders never cease, under budget. Included is the delivery of the program implementation plan; a thorough review of all the manufacturing and tooling plans necessary to being fabrication of Dream Chaser’s aeroshell; the manufacture and ground based tests of the vehicle’s hybrid motor; and the design, fabrication, assembly and test of the space plane’s primary structure to verify support for landing gear and motor thrust loads. The team also successfully flight tested a scale model, dropping it from over 14,000 feet at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center located at Edwards AFB in California’s Mojave Desert.

Robust Business Model

Despite the mystique of space flight and the considerable engineering challenges associated with a project like Dream Chaser, this is, after all, a commercial venture. So, while the engineers have been busily working with all the tools available to modern day design, including FEA and CFD to simulate the conditions the vehicle will encounter during its travels to the edge of space and back, other members of the SNC team have been conducting market research studies to see if the concept is financially viable.

Happily, the answer seems to be yes. The company is developing multiple potential markets for its Crew Transportation System supported by a reusable lifting body such as Dream Chaser. Among the markets are human transportation (don’t forget the tourists), critical cargo transportation (e.g. supplying the International Space Station), orbital servicing, and orbital sensor and testbed operations. SNC’s relationship with Virgin Galactic gives them the benefit of Virgin’s considerable marketing prowess to develop non-NASA customers around the globe.

And the impact of Dream Chaser on U.S. manufacturing and job creation? NASA is sanguine. Said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver while visiting the SNC facilities in Boulder, Colo. last February, "It's a pleasure to see commercial space making rapid progress in Colorado. As NASA becomes more nimble, companies like Sierra Nevada and others will help the U.S. out-innovate, out-educate and out-build any competitor in the world.”

The press release went on to say, “As NASA focuses on a renewed program of technology development to reach destinations farther in the solar system, it will continue a vigorous program of human spaceflight aboard the International Space Station and foster a growing commercial space industry with the capability to produce jobs and economic benefits.”

Although transporting crew and servicing the ISS will be an early Dream Chaser goal, it’s major impact on the economy will be through SNC’s expanded operations that include placing and servicing hundreds of satellites in orbit over the next few years, as well as meeting the requirements of other civil agencies, commercial space operations, military agencies, international markets and tourism.

It’s a dream worth chasing.



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