On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corporation held a press conference to make a major announcement concerning the development of its development its Dream Chaser lifting body. The question-and-answer session also revealed interesting facts about Sierra Nevada’s plans for Dream Chaser, which are not limited to the International Space Station.
The major topic of the press conference was Sierra Nevada’s new partnership with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. Lockheed Martin, it was announced, will build the composite structure for the Dream Chaser flight test article at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. The structure is being built under the $212.5 million Space Act Agreement which Sierra Nevada recieved under the NASA Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Program. Lockheed Martin will also serve as a certification partner to help Sierra Nevada achieve NASA’s certification requirements for carrying crew to the International Space Station.
During the question-and-answer session, Mark Sirangelo said the destination for Dream Chaser is Low Earth Orbit, not just the International Space Station. Sirangelo is Sierra Nevada’s corporate vice president and head of Space Systems.
Sirangelo said that Dream Chaser will be able to host on-orbit research on its own, independent of the International Space Station. This would provide a capability similar to the Spacelab module carried by the Space Shuttle or SpaceX’s proposed Dragonlab.
Satellite repair was also mentioned. This was a capability demonstrated in the early days of the Space Shuttle program, but rarely used in recent years (apart from Hubble) due to the cost. Dream Chaser promises to be a more economical vehicle for such missions.
Sirangelo also mentioned orbital tourism. Presumably, might include transporting customers to a ISS, Bigelow Aerospace space station, or a self-hosted mission. (Former NASA astronaut Jim Voss pointed out that the lifting body is fairly roomy, by space standards. Voss now works for Sierra Nevada as who now works for Sierra Nevada as vice-president for Space Exploration Systems and Dream Chaser project manager.)
Sirangelo said Dream Chaser can restart its engines for orbital maneuvering. That is a requirement for most satellite-servicing missions. Although Sirangelo did not mention it, orbital maneuuvering also brings up the possibility of commercial missions. The Air Force has never managed to develop a manned space capability. Dream Chaser could allow the Air Force to circumvent the unwritten policy that says the military isn’t allowed to do manned space. If a commercial vehicle like Dream Chaser existed, it’s likely the Air Force would decide to use it occassionally, just as it flew military payload specialists on the Shuttle from time to time.
Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager for Civil Space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, put in plug for the Orion capsule which Lockheed Martin is developing for NASA. According to Crocker, a lifting body like Dream Chaser is good for Low Earth Orbit while capsules are good for beyond-LEO exploration. In reality, however, a lifting body has advantages for beyond-LEO missions as well. Lifting bodies provide a gentler reentry, with fewer g’s. Voss mentioned the lower g-loading as was a competitive advantage for LEO missions, but it’s even more advantageous for astronauts returning from long-duration deep-space missions who will be deconditioned. (At least, until NASA develops exploration ships with artificial gravity.)
Getting involved with Sierra Nevada on Dream Chaser seems like a good way for Lockheed to hedge its Orion bet. A couple years ago, Lockheed Martin floated the idea of building an “Orion Lite” capsule, derived from NASA’s Orion but cheaper, which would be launched on an Atlas V rocket and could carry customers to a Bigelow Space Station. No apparent work has been done on Orion Lite, however, and the concept is believed to be dead. Dream Chaser gets them back into the game.