What private manned spaceship will NASA pick?

Speculation grows on the upcoming down-select decision by NASA of its manned commercial space program.

Next up is the announcement of the transition to the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, to be announced later this month, or early in September, depending on political direction. Although the source selection process is obviously an internal debate, with its results embargoed until the time of the NASA announcement, it is hoped that two of the commercial crew providers will move forward with additional funding.

At the ASAP meeting, Ms. Lueders expressed “NASA’s desire to continue the partnerships even after the announcement, including with companies not selected.” That continued association may be in the form of unfunded Space Act Agreements (SAA), not unlike that which Blue Origin is currently working under, as it develops a crew capsule outside of the trio working with CCiCAP funding. “People are recognizing the value of competition and have an appreciation for shared knowledge,” added Ms. Lueders. “NASA has learned from the companies and the companies have learned from NASA. It would be a big plus to continue the relationships.”

As to which companies are likely to win through to the CCtCap phase, that is a tightly kept secret. However, over recent months, sources have noted NASA’s strong affection toward the multi-capable Dream Chaser, while SpaceX has a growing track record with its Falcon 9 and cargo-Dragon combinations via its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions. [emphasis mine]

My sense in the last few months has also leaned heavily in favor of Dragon and Dream Chaser, both of whom appear to be moving forward with construction at a fast pace. Boeing meanwhile has instead made it seem that it wishes to invest as little capital in its project as possible, unless it wins the competition. While the first two companies have unveiled real hardware, Boeing continues to show us mostly mock-ups.

The Dream Chaser test vehicle to fly again

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has announced that its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle has been refurbished and will complete a number of manned and unmanned flight tests in the fall, with their schedule on track for a November 2016 orbital test flight.

“We will do between two and five additional flights. A couple will be crewed. As a result of the vehicle being upgraded, we will be flying our orbital flight software, which will give us about a year’s worth of advancement on the vehicle.” Flights are expected to last over a six- to nine-month period, he adds.

Sierra Nevada has also continued to expand its partnerships, both in the aerospace industry as well as with other countries. The first action is likely part of a lobbying effort to help convince NASA to choose it when it down selects its commercial manned program from three manned spacecraft to two later this year. The second action indicates that even if Sierra Nevada is not chosen by NASA, they plan to proceed to construction anyway to serve other customers.

Dream Chaser air frame unveiled

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada and Lockheed Martin today unveiled the composite airframe that will be used for the Dream Chaser spacecraft.

Essentially this is the first major structural component of the actual spacecraft. Lockheed was chosen by Sierra Nevada as the subcontractor to build it because of that company’s extensive experience with composites. It also gets them bonus points in Congress by using this powerful well placed company with many employees in important Congressional districts.

Sierra Nevada signs deal with Japan

The competition heats up: Japan has signed a development agreement with Sierra Nevada in connection with its Dream Chaser manned spacecraft.

I was also tempted to preface this post with the phrase, “Who needs NASA?” Sierra Nevada has a viable product that can get humans into space cheaply. Several countries, Germany, now Japan, want to get their own citizens into space, and have realized what a bargain Dream Chaser is. Sierra Nevada is taking advantage of this demand to sell its product worldwide. If Congress decides to defund them, or NASA decides not to pick them to continue development, they very clearly intend to build the ship anyway. It just won’t be used to put American astronauts into space.

An contract extension from NASA for SpaceX and Sierra Nevada

NASA has given SpaceX and Sierra Nevada six additional months, until March 2015, to complete their last contractual milestones for building their manned spacecraft.

An amendment signed by William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, on May 16 gives SpaceX until March 31, 2015, to complete the 14th and final milestone under its $440 million CCiCap agreement — a pad abort test of its Dragon capsule. The test originally was planned for April 2014.

On May 19, Gerstenmaier signed a similar amendment to Sierra Nevada’s $212.5 million CCiCap award to extend work associated with flight tests of the company’s Dream Chaser engineering test article until March 31, 2015.

NASA’s third Commercial Crew partner, Boeing, is on track to complete all its milestones, worth a combined $460 million, by the end of August,

The significance of this extension is that it reveals something about the dates for both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s next flight tests. The previously date for the pad abort test for Dragon had most recently been set for this summer. They are obviously not meeting that schedule and need more time. Sierra Nevada meanwhile wants to fly its Dream Chaser test vehicle some more, but apparently needs time to get it flight ready after it sustained damage during landing on its one and only flight test.

In addition, this extension suggests something about NASA’s assessment of the efforts of all three companies. The agency is supposed to down select to two companies by the end of the summer. The extension suggests that they are hoping to keep all three companies funded so that they all build their spacecraft.

Sierra Nevada has announced that it plans to do additional test flights in 2014 of its prototype Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle

Sierra Nevada has announced that it plans to do additional test flights in 2014 of its prototype Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle.

This is the same test vehicle that skidded off the runway during its first flight when one of its landing legs did not deploy. The company has never released any images of that smashup, but has said the craft was salvageable. I imagine this announcement is part of the continuing lobbying campaign by all the companies (SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada) competing in NASA’s commercial manned program. NASA is supposed to down select to two companies, maybe only one, by the end of the summer.

Sierra Nevada has successfully completed wind tunnel tests a several scale models of their winged spacecraft Dream Chaser.

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has successfully completed wind tunnel tests a several scale models of their winged spacecraft Dream Chaser.

It appears from these tests that the spacecraft’s design works better than expected during ascent and re-entry.

The article also gives a quick overview of the status of all three commercial companies, and from this it really looks to me as if Boeing is the least aggressive in pursuing its construction effort. This is merely an impression, and not to be taken too seriously, but it really does look like Boeing is playing the public relations game, doing as little work as possible while trying to garner the most publicity while waiting for the award of the contract.

Sierra Nevada is planning additional glide tests in the fall. using its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle.

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada is planning additional glide tests in the fall. using its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle.

This is the same test vehicle that crashed last October during its first glide test when one landing gear failed to deploy properly. The glide test itself was a success however, as the vehicle did a controlled unmanned glide perfectly to the runway, and the failed landing gear was one that the spacecraft will not use once completed.

Note also that these announced flight tests will occur after NASA eliminates one of the companies competing for the final crew ferrying contract to ISS. This suggests that Sierra Nevada plans to continue development of Dream Chaser, regardless of whether they get the contract or not.

Houston yesterday signed a letter of intent with Sierra Nevada to provide the company a home at that city’s proposed spaceport.

The competition heats up: Houston yesterday signed a letter of intent with Sierra Nevada to provide the company a home at that city’s proposed spaceport.

The competition here is not from the spaceship company but from the spaceport. Houston is in a race with Colorado and Florida for the launch business. In fact, it appears that a lot of American cities are scrambling to attract the new aerospace launch companies, suggesting that they all see a new industry aborning and want their share.

Another example: The California legislature has passed a ten year tax exemption for spaceflight companies.

Sierra Nevada has subcontracted Lockheed Martin to help build its Dream Chaser spacecraft.

Sierra Nevada has subcontracted Lockheed Martin to help build its Dream Chaser spacecraft.

The article is about the beginnings of construction at the Michoud Assembly facility in Louisiana, but to me the significant fact revealed by this article is that Jim Crocker of Lockheed Martin is involved in the effort. Crocker was one of the key engineers who came up with the solutions that helped return focus to the Hubble Space Telescope back in 1993. He is one of the country’s best aerospace engineers, and his participation here is excellent news.

An outline of Dream Chaser’s test flight schedule for the next three years, leading to its first crewed flight in 2017.

An outline of Dream Chaser’s test flight schedule for the next three years, leading to its first crewed flight in 2017.

The article makes a big deal about Sierra Nevada’s completion of a NASA paperwork milestone, but to me the aggressive flight schedule is more interesting, including news that the engineering vehicle used in the test flight in October was not damaged in landing so badly it could no longer be used.

The Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article (ETA) has since arrived back in her home port in Colorado, following her eventful exploits in California. Despite a red-faced landing for the baby orbiter, she earned her wings during an automated free flight over the famous Edwards Air Force Base, a flight that was perfectly executed, per the objectives of the Commercial Crew check list. The vehicle will now enjoy a period of outfitting and upgrading, preparing her for one or two more flights – listed as ALT-1 and ALT-2 – beginning later this year. Both will once again be conducted at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The ETA will never taste the coldness of space, with her role not unlike that of Shuttle Enterprise, a pathfinder vehicle used to safely refine the final part of the mission for the vehicles that will follow in her footsteps. The Dream Chaser that will launch into orbit will be called the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which is currently undergoing construction at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF). Debuting atop of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V, the OFT-1 (Orbital Test Flight -1) is scheduled to take place in late 2016. This flight will be automated, testing the entire Dream Chaser system, prior to the crewed OFT-2 mission in early 2017. [emphasis mine]

I think I will up my bet from yesterday. I am now willing to bet that all of the commercial crew spacecraft chosen by NASA to complete construction will fly their privately built manned spacecraft with crew before NASA flies its first unmanned test flight of Orion/SLS.

The European Space Agency announced today that it is studying using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft for manned flights.

The European Space Agency announced today that it is studying using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft for manned flights.

This arrangement allows ESA to prove its hardware and technology in space on a crewed spacecraft. In exchange, SNC will have its development costs and production time potentially lessened as well as benefit from the extensive experience of ESA and its industrial partners. At the end of an initial evaluation and planning phase, which will continue through 2014, the organisations expect to continue the relationship through a long-term agreement leading to flight operations. Both entities foresee further arrangements to continue the partnership towards the potential use of Dream Chaser for European missions.

This supplements an earlier announcement by Germany which also is considering using Dream Chaser.

Germany has funded a study to look into using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser for its space operations.

The competition heats up: Germany has funded a study to look into using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser for its space operations.

Named DC4EU (Dream Chaser for European Utilization), the project is to explore ways in which the Dream Chasercan be used to cover German and European requirements for the transportation of payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and for deployment as a manned or unmanned space vehicle allowing German and European scientists to conduct research under weightless conditions over extended periods of time. Given the capability which the Dream Chaser has for reaching orbits at a substantially greater altitude than the ISS, the study will determine the extent to which it is able to supply satellites or remove decommissioned satellites from their orbits.

All hail competition and private enterprise! Sierra Nevada designed it. Sierra Nevada built it. Sierra Nevada owns it. If NASA decides it doesn’t want to buy it, there is no reason the company can’t sell it to someone else, for profit.

Sierra Nevada reveals that its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle survived its bad landing in weekend in reasonably good shape.

Sierra Nevada reveals that its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle survived its bad landing this weekend in reasonably good shape.

After lining up on the runway, the spacecraft’s nose landing skid and right main landing gear deployed normally about 200 feet off the ground. But the left main gear hung up for some reason. Sirangelo said the software issued the proper commands, leading engineers to suspect a mechanical problem of some sort.

The landing gear in the test vehicle were taken from an F-5 training jet and will not be used on operational versions of the Dream Chaser.

In any case, the Dream Chaser’s flight software responded to the unbalanced load at touchdown, keeping the spacecraft’s left wing off the ground as long as possible. But it eventually came down and the craft skidded off the runway in a cloud of dust. [emphasis mine]

They should release the video. If the vehicle’s software was able to keep the vehicle stable, even as it was speeding down a runway short one wheel, this would impress people. Not releasing video of this only feeds the doubts people have.

Sierra Nevada today released a video of the test flight this past weekend of its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle.

Sierra Nevada today released a video of the test flight this past weekend of its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle.

Don’t get too excited. They very cleverly have edited the tape so that we do not see what happened after touchdown. You can see how the left landing gear does not completely deploy, but then they cut away. Nonetheless, the video is posted below the fold.
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Sierra Nevada provides an update on the condition of its Dream Chaser test vehicle after this weekend’s glide flight and bad landing.

Sierra Nevada provides an update on the condition of its Dream Chaser test vehicle after this weekend’s glide flight and bad landing.

SNC has not yet decided whether to repair the Dream Chaser test craft, which does not use the same landing gear the orbital vehicle would use. Investigating what went wrong will take “a couple of weeks,” Sirangelo estimated. He said the vehicle, which is now in a hangar in Mojave, Calif., was “fully intact” after the crash.

“The pressure vessel was completely pristine, the computers are still working, there was no damage to the crew cabin or flight systems,” Sirangelo said. “I went inside it myself and it was perfectly fine. There was some damage from skidding.

“We learned everything we wanted to on this test, and learned more than we expected to learn,” Sirangelo said. “We believe we’ve got most of the data we need [but] I can’t honestly say, I just don’t know yet. It’s not going to affect our schedule in the long term [but] It might affect whether we do another free flight test this year or next year. We’re still assessing that.”

The company also claims that the flight met the requirements of a $15 million NASA milestone payment, since the goals of the flight were to test the vehicle’s flight capabilities, not its landing gear. (The failed landing gear used will not be the gear used on the final flight vehicle.)

They have scheduled a press conference for tomorrow. Stay tuned.

In its first free flying glide test, the Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle had a perfect flight and approach to landing but flipped over on the runway when its left land gear failed to deploy.

In its first free flying glide test, the Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle had a perfect flight and approach to landing but flipped over on the runway when its left land gear failed to deploy.

I haven’t yet found any post landing images, nor any information about damage to the test vehicle. This is the kind of tragic failure that sometimes kills a project. The vehicle, operating unmanned, performed quite well actually, flying freely and gliding to the runway as planned. The failure of the one landing gear to deploy is a relatively easy engineering fix. However, the failure could cost a fortune, money the company might not have, if it requires the construction of an entire new test vehicle.

Sierra Nevada’s engineering test vehicle of its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle completed its first capture carry flight test yesterday.

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada’s engineering test vehicle of its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle completed its first capture carry flight test yesterday.

The test, which saw the lifting body space vehicle lifted by a Sikorsky S-64 to around 12,400 ft above the dry lakebed, follows completion of tow tests earlier this month. … During the Aug 22 flight the Dream Chaser’s flight computer, guidance, navigation and control systems were tested along with its landing gear and nose skid, which were deployed during the sortie.

Sierra Nevada has completed its first tow tests of its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle, now officially named “Eagle.”

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has completed its first tow tests of its Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle, now officially named “Eagle.”

These tests were merely to check out the craft’s landing systems, with it being pulled along the runway at 10 to 20 mph. Faster tests, followed by actual drop tests, are to follow.

The article has some great information about Dream Chaser itself.

Sierra Nevada has begun the testing program of Dream Chaser’s engines.

The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has begun the testing program of Dream Chaser’s engines.

These tests were to verify that the engine test stand will function properly when they begin testing the engines themselves. Note also that Sierra Nevada provided the engines for SpaceShipTwo, and that Dream Chaser’s engines appear to be some variant of that hybrid engine design.

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