SNC’s Space Systems Group lands major contract
By Jan Wondra
A warning up front: when you’re talking about anything to do with space technology, you’re going to deal with a lot of initials.
Talk with one of the rocket scientist leading Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems Group based here in Colorado and the enthusiasm is infectious. And no wonder. SNC, along with Orbital ATK and Space X, beat out competitors Boeing and Lockheed Martin to win the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s lucrative cargo contract to supply the International Space Station. The first mission for the new cargo supply vehicle, called the Dream Chaser Cargo System, could lift off as early 2019. The contract is for a minimum of six missions, extending through 2024, which is the current projected lifespan of the ISS.
“The Dream Chaser is unique from all the other space vehicles in Russia, Europe or the U.S. We’re not a capsule and all of the other cargo and crew vehicles are capsules,” said John Roth, vice president of business development for SNC Space Systems. “We’re the only vehicle that looks like a shuttle, has wings and flies and lands on a runway. It makes it much easier than pulling things out of the ocean and gives NASA immediate access to the cargo coming back from the ISS.”
SNA staff call the frame of the Dream Chaser a “space utility vehicle.” It’s unique for several reasons. First, it’s made for autonomous unmanned flight—it can get from here to the space station and back again without a pilot. Second, it’s a multi-mission reusable vehicle, bringing great economy to the process of resupplying and handling the cargo of ISS, or for that matter transporting anything commercial into low-Earth orbit.
The new Dream Chaser is designed to do three things. It will take cargo up to the ISS and it will take things off the ISS that need to be disposed of, burning them up in the atmosphere prior to re-entry. Its third use is to bring back the results of research being conducted on the ISS. It is the only cargo vehicle that will actually get research results back to Earth on a runway landing, reducing the likelihood of damaging or destroying the contents.
SNC has built a full-scale test model and conducted atmospheric flights to confirm that the system can steer itself to a landing. Lockheed Martin will build the basic fuselage of the orbital vehicle. The final assembly will be in SNA’s Fort Worth, Texas facility and the final vehicle assembly will be in SNC’s Louisville, Colo. assembly plant. If the Dream Chaser appears to resemble the U.S. space shuttle, retired from service last year, there’s a reason for that.
“It’s made to take off and land on a regular runway, so it can land anywhere, not just at Kennedy Space Center,” Roth said. “It can land on a runway for the European Space Agency in Germany, or in Japan if we need it to. That means the cost of our tech investment can be spread over multiple uses.”
While NASA has contracted for missions, SNA retains the ownership of the intellectual property and the vehicle. This new kind of public-private partnerships appears to represent the future.
“NASA just pays for the cargo missions. The contract is actually a services contract,” Roth said. “They’re paying for at least six cargo missions. NASA came up with the idea for both private companies and NASA to invest in space technology. This provides incentive for development because we retain the patents and we own the vehicles.”
According to Roth, what this means for Colorado cannot be over-estimated.
“Colorado companies pretty much own the deep-space program, and now our Dream Chaser vehicle is designed to do low-Earth orbit missions,” Roth said. “People need to know that Colorado is leading, not just in this country, but in the world. And the impact is major. It’s not just Lockheed Martin or SNC. There are a number of smaller subcontractors and suppliers based here and we have major university partners.”
Given the good news, The Villager asked Roth if SNA is being courted by other states.
“We intend to remain headquartered here in Colorado,” he said. “Yes, we’ve been approached by several states, but we are proud to be in Colorado. We have good partnerships here and we intend to stay.”