Discuss as:

Company chases NASA's dream

NASA video looks at the heritage of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser concept.

NASA likes the idea of a mini-shuttle spaceship so much that they're paying Sierra Nevada Corp. $100 million to start developing it. The result is a case of deja vu all over again: Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane is based on a design NASA considered more than 20 years ago.

Sierra Nevada is updating the HL-20 lifting-body design for the 21st century, using carbon composite construction techniques and state-of-the-art avionics. If NASA likes what it sees and provides further funding, the Dream Chaser could be ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station as early as 2015. Three other companies — SpaceX, the Boeing Co. and Blue Origin — are also receiving development money from NASA as part of the agency's commercial crew development program.

Sierra Nevada is the only company of the four that is working on a winged vehicle like the shuttle, and it plans to capitalize on the parallels. Just last week, Sierra Nevada Space Systems' chairman, Mark Sirangelo, signed an agreement with NASA to use facilities at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the development and launch of the Dream Chaser.


Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Mark Sirangelo holds a model of the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle during a signing ceremony at Kennedy Space Center. Center director Bob Cabana is at left, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is at right.

After the signing ceremony, Sirangelo said he hoped to hire shuttle workers to become part of a public-private team at the space center, starting out with dozens and eventually growing to hundreds. "We don't need as many people [as the shuttle program employed], but some of the people have the kids of skills that we would need," he told me.

Time is of the essence, however. And so is money. Sirangelo noted that Sierra Nevada's current timetable called for suborbital test flights starting in 2013 and orbital tests in 2014.

"We have to start now to get ready for that ... and having some predictability from NASA and Congress as to what this program is going to look like will help us hire sooner and more," he said. "If they come in and say the president's budget is accepted, then we're going to hire fairly aggressively. If they come in and say there's no money, then that's going to have an effect on us as well."

On the eve of the shuttle program's last launch, I sat down with Sirangelo at Kennedy Space Center to discuss Sierra Nevada's perspective on the post-shuttle era. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: One of the concerns that comes up is that commercial providers won't provide the level of safety and reliability that NASA has achieved, and the attention to safety is why spaceflight has been so expensive. How do you respond to that concern?

Mark Sirangelo: I'll respond by saying that NASA is creating the safety standard. We have to pass, otherwise we don't fly. It's like the FAA and its standard for commercial aircraft. If you don't pass it, you don't fly your new commercial aircraft. So the presumption is that if NASA creates the standard and we pass it ... we would have passed what they needed us to pass.

The second part of the answer is that we have a team of 10 companies, all of whom have been in human spaceflight almost from the beginning. This idea that this is a separate industry is really a misnomer. NASA has never built a vehicle on its own. It's always had commercial partners. The only difference is in the contract method — and the fact that we're investing alongside NASA. We have Boeing on our team, we have Aerojet on our team, we have Draper Lab. We're using Lockheed's rocket [the Atlas 5]. These are not novices building Tinker Toys. These are companies that have been in business for a long time.

What's different is that instead of NASA owning the vehicle, the company owns the vehicle, and NASA's getting a service. But that's exactly what they're doing right now. They're buying a service from Russia. NASA doesn't own the Soyuz, they're buying a seat. And they have less insight, less oversight, less involvement with the whole Russian space program than they have with our program.

Q: Why do you think it is that spaceflight has been so expensive? Why can the commercial sector do it for less?

A:I think the mission is simpler. The shuttle has a very complex mission. Our vehicle is shuttle-like, but we're one-fortieth the size. We're like an SUV as opposed to a big trailer truck. We have a purpose: We want to take seven members of your family on a trip with luggage, and we want to bring them home safely. That's a lot less complex to design than a big trailer truck with all the equipment that's required. With the shuttle, NASA had to have a program that could do everything. The shuttle had to take huge amounts of cargo, it had to take very complex modules, it had to transfer people. When you look at that, you understand why it was so expensive. But this is a very direct, point-based solution.

We're going to follow all the same safety requirements that apply to other NASA vehicles. Interestingly enough, those safety standards don't apply to the Soyuz. It's not a human-rated vehicle. There's not a human-rated vehicle in the world.

Q: When do you think the human-rating standards will be drawn up?

A: The important thing for all of us is that we work together to do that sooner rather than later. It's a big challenge, because this is not a cost-plus contract. If somebody makes a design change three years from now, there's not a pot full of money to go into and say, let's just keep going. What we're encouraging everybody to do is sit down and have those discussions today so we can all design what's necessary for safety into the vehicle, during the design phase rather than the production phase.

We've seen the draft safety standards. We're designing to those right now. There's nothing in them that we don't think we can meet.

Q: Do you have a fix on the per-mission cost for sending crew up to the space station?

A: We're not publishing prices, but we believe we can come in at less than the cost to the Russians. We think substantially less. [The Russian price per seat is rising to almost $63 million in 2014.] Part of it depends on how many flights there are. Our vehicle is a fully reusable vehicle. If we can look at 20 flights or 30 flights, it drops the cost down significantly. If it's two or three, then we'll have to deal with that. But because our vehicle reusable and because it's made of composite material, we've already got all the molds built and we can actually make additional vehicles.

Q: Is that where Virgin Galactic enters the picture? There might be flights outside the NASA contract that the Dream Chaser would be able to capitalize on.

A: There are three areas where we would work with Virgin Galactic. One is that we're working with them on potentially using the WhiteKnightTwo for drop tests of the vehicle, atmospheric testing.

They are a very good marketer, and we have a vehicle that has seats and can go to space. They have a big cadre of people who will fly suborbitally, some of whom want to climb the next, bigger mountain. That's human nature, and we're excited about that. If they have thousands of people who go suborbital, maybe 5 percent, 10 percent will want to take the next step and go orbital. That's a very natural progression. The vehicles are very similar, they're composite, and there would be a consistency of approach.

Q: And the third area?

A:We think that as we look toward other potential destinations beyond the space station, be it Bigelow Aerospace or someone else, there might be transportation systems necessary for that. So we could see a three-way partnership involving the station owner, Virgin Galactic and ourselves to market this experience.

Q: Is it possible that the Dream Chaser could just do several orbits and come back down without going to an orbital destination?

A: Yes, you could imagine an experience — it'd be a pretty cool experience  — where you get to spend a few days in space, and maybe you fly toward the space station but you don't go on it. For those who have that interest, it could be a pretty interesting trip.

And there are more practical things beyond space tourism. We built this big laboratory, the space station, but there's no way to get anything home. What people forget is that the shuttle was the return vehicle. The European or Japanese cargo transfer vehicles can't come home. The only vehiclethat comes home is the Soyuz, and if you've ever seen the Soyuz, you know that you can barely get three midsize people in there.

So we have a problem. We built this wonderful laboratory in space, and we didn't build it just to send a few humans to sit there, we built it to do work. To do science, and take that work home. That's what prompted me to get into this, actually. Beyond the work with NASA, there are all these other things that are necessary. If you are spending a lot of money doing bioscience with critical experiments in space, and you want to bring them home, would you rather fly them home with less than 2 G's, land on a runway and be able to walk up to the vehicle as soon as it stops, put the experiments in a refrigerated vehicle and get them to the lab ... or would you want them to go bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean somewhere?

We think that's a very important market. The more trips we make to the station, the more likely it is that more science gets done. And that's why we built the space station in the first place. We didn't build it to use as an observatory, we built it to do work.

Another way we see this vehicle is as a servicing vehicle. Personally, if I were writing a history of the shuttle program, one of the things I would put right at the top is the fact that it fixed the Hubble Space Telescope. We're getting so much value in science, and we're advancing our knowledge of the universe in ways we never thought possible. That's because the shuttle went up and fixed the mirrors, and it did the repair work that it needed to do. If we didn't have that, that whole telescope would have been toast. We would have had none of the knowledge we have now. We think that having a vehicle that could do servicing in space — moving satellites or fixing things in space — would be really useful.

Q: Do you have any aspirations beyond Earth orbit?

A: No, we don't. We've got a pretty big job in front of us. A lot of people don't know much about us. We have 2,200 people in our company. We've been around for 40 years. We're owned and run by the management of the company.  We don't have outside ownership. We've been growing every year for the last 14 years, and we're profitable. We've been in space for 400 missions now. All this is just to say that we know how hard it is to build a business. We've succeeded because we're disciplined. We know what we do well, and we know what we don't do well.

That's why we have such a big team. We looked around and said, "What are the things in this mission that we can do, what else needs to be done, and who do we find to do all these other things?" We went out and found the best companies in the space industry, and said, "Hey, this is what we're doing, we're leading it, do you want to come join us?" That's how we think space gets done.

Q: A lot of people look at the space effort nowadays and ask, "What's the point, when there are so many problems here on Earth?" Do you see any of that?

A: I hear that, but it doesn't manifest itself so much. I'll give you an example:We have a mockup of the vehicle on the campus of the University of Colorado, and people have told me that the most interesting thing is the ability to reach out and touch a space vehicle. Look at how many people see science-fiction movies, or space movies at an IMAX theater. People are given a passion — maybe it was a destination, or an experience, or seeing the Mars rovers. Something that people can relate to on a personal level.

What we have lacked is the emotion behind the space program. And what we're trying to do is put some of the emotion back. Let's say, for example, we have the ability to land this vehicle on any runway. That's a technical ability, but it could be a passion ability, too. Suppose we intentionally land in Denver, so that all those kids in Colorado can see a space vehicle land, and can come up and see it and touch it. Less than 1 percent of the people in this country have ever even seen a space vehicle in a museum. What would the kids of tomorrow think if we landed in 15 different cities around the country, and everybody got a chance to come and see a space vehicle at an air show? How many of those kids would go out and say, "I want to go to space, I want to be a designer, I want to be an engineer"? That's what our generation did. What we need is that kind of passion.

More perspectives on the post-shuttle era:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also add me to your Google+ circle, and check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.