Sierra Nevada favors Alabama for Dream Chaser’s commercial port

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The competition heats up: At a workshop in Alabama this week Sierra Nevada’s vice president indicated that though the company has not yet finalized its decision, it is strongly leaning to picking Huntsville as the commercial spaceport for its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, being built to ferry cargo to ISS.

“There was a leap of faith on the Huntsville side that we would be a company that could get this vehicle built and start servicing the space station…,” Sierra Nevada Vice President John Roth said Thursday. “Yes, we have been approached by other airports for ventures. We’re not moving forward at this time with any of those. Right now, Huntsville is the only community we’re moving forward with a (landing) license on.”

A preliminary local study identified four hurdles to landing Dream Chaser at the Huntsville International Airport: required licenses for the craft and airport, environmental impact approval, Federal Aviation Administration approval of the landing path and possible runway damage.

Why do I sense the unseen hand of porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) in this story? Could it be that one of the reasons NASA finally included Dream Chaser in its cargo contract was that the company had not only chosen the Alabama-based Atlas 5 rocket for its launch vehicle but was also courting Alabama for its commercial base, and Shelby had made it clear behind the scenes that he wanted that business? Could it be that Sierra Nevada is now returning the favor, having gotten the contract?

Don’t get me wrong. I think it was a good choice for NASA to give that contract to Sierra Nevada. I just think it important to note how giving some of our power away to politicians allows them to wield that power over us, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes against it, but always to make themselves more powerful. In the end, giving that power away is never a good option.


  • Edward

    Some months back, I suggested that landing in a place other than the launch site would add time and money to the reusability of Dream Chaser, degrading its desirability. The discussion had been about landing close to a customer’s location so that a returning payload would get to the customer in a more timely manner.

    Since Sierra Nevada is willing to routinely land far from the launch site, with all the expense and effort that entails, I will revise my opinion: they may also find other worldwide landing sites to better serve customers who desire rapid return of their experiments, perhaps increasing its desirability.

  • mkent

    I suspect this is more to suck up to the Marshall Space Flight Center than to Sen. Shelby.

    Also, why would you think Sierra Nevada is a good choice for commercial cargo? Their chance of completing the contract would seem to be very low based on their previous history.

  • Tom Billings

    “Their chance of completing the contract would seem to be very low based on their previous history.”

    Which previous history? The one of 30+ years in the aerospace business, building and delivering satellites and other systems? Or just the hybrid motor systems they inherited from Space Dev?

    Note that their recent acquisition of Orbitec has placed in SNC’s hands the vortex-cooled thrust chamber tech for bipropellant liquid engines that can solve the biggest problems the hybrids have, which is their lack of smooth thrust. I would be very pleased to see them replacing those hybrids on DreamChaser with the already flown vortex-cooled engine tech. Its been tested with the nitrous oxidizer as well.

    To look *only* at one portion of a company’s portfolio does not tell you what it can do.

  • Dick Eagleson

    No idea if Shelby instigated this, but he certainly wouldn’t get in the way. There was a time when he might have tried, but that time has passed. Behind Shelby are the interests he serves. The CRS 2 contract Sierra-Nevada got is at least as much a “get” for Alabama as it is for SNC’s home state. Dream Chaser will launch on Atlas 5, initially, and, one presumes, Vulcan once Atlas V is retired. These are missions ULA is badly going to need as they are civilian government-paid launches that will help make up for the expected diminishing numbers of national security payload launches.

    Sierra-Nevada is also potentially a significant new customer for some of those Alabama-based aerospace sub-contractors who wrote a letter to Shelby and the rest of the Alabama congressional delegation awhile back obliquely requesting an end to the latter’s indiscriminate covert war against New Space. These folks understand that New Space is not only not going away, but is poised for dominance of the industry. These guys have done well selling to ULA, but they want in with New Space too, not to follow their Confederate forbears in losing some doomed Glorious Cause. This may account for Commercial Crew getting no appropriation “haircut” this year for the first time ever.

    I think there is something of a full-court press going on now by Old Space – especially ULA – to co-opt the smaller, hungrier New Space outfits. The recent ouster of XCOR’s founders is another such sign. SpaceX and Blue Origin are beyond effective reach at this point, but smaller outfits are still vulnerable to blandishments such as junior memberships in The Old Boy’s Club. Sierra-Nevada, predating New Space and having long-standing significant ties to legacy aerospace was a logical target.

    Ex-ULA boss Michael Gass’s recent appointment to the XCOR board seemed odd, perhaps even counterproductive, viewed in isolation. But this Sierra-Nevada move now makes the XCOR thing look like part of a coordinated campaign by ULA to line up their revised roster for the coming launch provider wars. XCOR will build the ACES engine and SNC will build, first, the cargo Dream Chaser and, in time, the crew version originally proposed as part of Commercial Crew as well. These, along with the Boeing Starliner, will provide a crucial second source of government-paid launch business during the critical transition from Atlas V to Vulcan. Orbital-ATK and Blue Origin will join XCOR as ULA engine suppliers, relegating the hopelessly uncompetitive AJR to the outer darkness.

    I think this is a coalition of convenience, organized because all participants have a stake in opposing the rise of SpaceX, and is going to be long-term unstable. The biggest future problem is Blue Origin’s ambitions to be an orbital launch services provider in its own right. BO has a current confluence of interests with ULA, but the two firms seem destined to be increasingly butting heads not too far down the road. Orbital-ATK is also a bit of a potential loose cannon, though not as obviously as in the case of BO.

  • mkent

    “Which previous history?”


    “The one of 30+ years in the aerospace business, building and delivering satellites and other systems?”

    They build components, not vehicles. IIRC, their entire space vehicle experience is CHIPsat, one STP sat for the Air Force, and the OrbComm OG2 satellites. The OG2 sats were the most complex space articles they’ve ever developed, and one of them would fit on my desk. Even then, the most complex part of the satellite — the communications payload — was built by a Boeing subsidiary.

    Their sole previous attempt at landing a lifting body test article (after it was dropped from a helicopter, not re-entering from space) ended in a crash.

    They are currently running three years late on their CCiCap contract.

    A hypersonic lifting body is an order of magnitude more complex than anything they’ve ever developed. On top of that they’ve got to deal with ISS proximity ops, NASA’s man-tended protocols, atmospheric re-entry, and vehicle-level system engineering issues. Maybe they’ll pull it off, but it’s rare for any organization to jump by an order of magnitude in capability in a step function. It usually ends badly.

  • Edward

    You have such low expectations for companies to be able to redirect their talented employees to new designs and products. You noted that they were successful moving from components to satellites.

    With optimism like that, we should not have started the COTS or the CCDev programs.

    And new startups, such as SpaceX, should have given up before starting up. Fortunately, NASA has more confidence in Sierra Nevada and other companies. Advancement is difficult without it.

    Your pessimism is not completely without merit, however, because not all startups and new products succeed. Kissler and VentureStar are good examples. I think, though, that we should give Sierra Nevada a chance to perform rather than dismissing them out of hand. We already know that they can make a large craft that is aerodynamic enough to fly down to a runway.

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