BEST 1 LOUISVILLE, CO – OCTOBER 15, 2019: Steven Lindsey, SNC Senior V-P of Space Exploration Systems, talks about the new spacecraft. Siera Nevada Corporation, in Louisville, held a press conference showcasing the primary vehicle structure for Dream Chaser, AmericaÕs spaceplane. The structure is the most advanced piece of technology and hardware for the orbital vehicle, which is being built and integrated in Colorado. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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There was a near-astronomical use of “amazing” and an impressive constellation of “fantastics” at Sierra Nevada Corp. in Louisville on Tuesday accompanying the unveiling of the primary structure for its Dream Chaser spacecraft.

John Curry, senior director and co-program manager of Space Exploration Systems, talks about the new Dream Chaser.

Sierra Nevada is contracted with NASA to fly six commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station through 2024 with its spacecraft, the first expected to launch in late 2021.

“We’re really, really excited about this. The structure rolled into the parking lot on Friday,” said Steven Lindsey, Sierra Nevada’s senior vice president of Space Exploration Systems, and a former NASA astronaut whose missions included the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. “This kicks off assembly, integration and tests for the vehicle.”

“We’re locking the doors and people like me will be locked out of this building” following an internal event scheduled Wednesday for employees to mark this benchmark, Lindsey said, as the pressurized composite spacecraft structure, 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, loomed on a raised platform behind him. “It’s all about building this thing, and getting it into flight. … We’re really excited about it. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Excited, too, was John Roth, vice president for business and development for Sierra Nevada, who presided over a media event Tuesday staged to celebrate the project’s progress to date.

“We can deliver up to 12,000 pounds of critical cargo and science experiments to the International Space Station, and maybe more importantly, we land with a very low-G reentry, a soft runway landing, so we can bring those very critical, sensitive, science experiments that NASA has, back to a soft landing, to be able to get them into examination and see how that science works out in a microgravity environment.”

Roth called the Dream Chaser “arguably one of the most complex and exquisite composite structures that has ever been built for air and space applications.”

On hand Tuesday were representatives of NASA, Lockheed Martin, which has a base in Littleton but built the structure for Sierra Nevada in Fort Worth, Texas, and Centennial-based United Launch Alliance, whose Vulcan Centaur heavy-lift launch vehicle will ferry the Dream Chaser aloft, where it can orbit the Earth for weeks at a time or dock at the space station for several months.

NASA Space Station Program Manager Kirk Shireman spoke to the importance of Dream Chaser’s being able to return science via a controlled landing at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility, where it can be accessed within 30 minutes for timely processing.

Shireman cited the return of a Soyuz landing capsule to Earth in a remote section of Kazakhstan on Oct. 3, in which time-sensitive items such as blood needed to make it to a lab within 48 hours.

“It turns out that we really didn’t make the 48 hours,” he said Tuesday. Using helicopters, jets, “and cross-country cab rides,” the deadline was missed by about five hours, Shireman conceded.

“With Dream Chaser, the vehicle comes and it lands literally 2 or 3 miles from where the scientists are, so that all  (race against time) goes away. … It really is an amazing capability, that we’re looking forward to having.”

There’s more than a lot of excitement attached to the project. There’s a lot of money, too.

Lindsey said Sierra Nevada is putting “over a billion dollars of our own money into the program. …The company is heavily invested in the vehicle.”

In a public/private partnership, NASA previously announced the awarding of three Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts to ensure the critical science, research and technology demonstrations that are informing the agency’s journey to Mars are delivered to the International Space Station from 2019 through 2024.

Those contracts, to Sierra Nevada, Orbital ATK of Dulles, Va., and SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., carry a maximum combined potential value of $14 billion from 2016 through 2024. NASA will order missions, as needed, and the actual total prices paid under the contract will depend on which mission types are ordered.

Lots of people, too, are involved, the Dream Chaser team being comprised of some 600 people, 400 of them in Colorado, the remaining 200 mostly in Madison, Wis., and Durham, N.C.

The six contracted ISS missions for the Dream Chaser spacecraft — which is designed to be reusable at least 15 times — are all to be without a crew. But that doesn’t mean Sierra Nevada is not interested in putting people on board, eventually.

“To prove ourselves with cargo and demonstrate our capability, we know there’s a huge amount of interest out there, not just at NASA, but multiple other places. …To be able to prove our vehicle under those circumstances and then go to crew, I think, would be a really good thing for us,” Lindsey said.

In introducing John Curry, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser CRS-2 program director, Roth joked that Curry has been placed on a three-hours-of-sleep-per-night regime until the Dream Chaser launches for the ISS late in 2021.

Curry, a former NASA space shuttle flight controller, laughed. But he appeared game for the challenge.

“We really do think we have a game changer, here,” Curry said. “I do think we’re going to change the world.

“I do think this is a great people mover,” he added, although for now people will not be on board. “Once we fly our missions to the space station, I think it’s like the ‘Field of Dreams.’ Build it and they will come. And I think we’ll be flying crew soon enough.”

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