19–22 August 2019
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Sierra Nevada Corp. Leading the Way to Space Commercialization

Posted: 10 July 2018, 4:45 p.m. EDT

 Steve Lindsey, vice president, Space Exploration Systems, Sierra Nevada Corp.

by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor

Sierra Nevada Corp. is helping the industry commercialize space through advancements in a range of interconnected products and services as well as through public-private partnerships, Steve Lindsey, vice president of Space Exploration Systems at SNC, said July 10 during the “Space Exploration Update” session at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati.

SNC, a private aerospace company founded in 1963, encompasses four groups: ISR Aviation and Security, Integrated Mission Systems, Electronic and Information Systems, and Space Systems, which manages the company’s most high-profile project, Dream Chaser.

SNC is one of three companies selected by NASA for its commercial resupply services program. The other two are: Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly Orbital ATK, and SpaceX. Under the contract, Dream Chaser is expected to begin delivering cargo to the International Space Station in 2020.

Lindsey said the Dream Chaser began as a reverse-engineered 1980s Soviet concept, which NASA’s Langley Research Center developed into a spaceplane called HL-20.

“At one point, it was going to be a crew rescue vehicle for the space station or a crew transfer vehicle for the space station — even potentially as a replacement for the space shuttle, just designed to carry people as opposed to people and cargo,” Lindsey said.

He said the idea “died a political death in about 1995” but that his boss at the time lobbied then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to license the HL-20 technology and that Griffin agreed.

SNC ended up with Langley’s full-scale HL-20 mockup that had been kept in storage, Lindsey said.

“More importantly, we got all of the data and all the work that NASA did, and so this was a true technology transfer from NASA to private industry,” he explained, adding that in developing Dream Chaser, SNC has also worked with Russian engineers who developed the original concept.

Lindsey noted that Dream Chaser provides SNC advantages over its competitors, including the ability to return science.

“When the space shuttle went away, the ISS essentially lost that capability,” he said. “What we do with our system — because we return to a runway, return a significant amount of cargo and payload to a runway — we bring back that capability. So that’s really why I think we’re in this program.”

Another advantage of Dream Chaser, Lindsey noted, is its use of non-toxic propulsion.

“You can literally as soon as you land walk right up to the aft hatch, open it up, and start pulling cargo out immediately,” he said.


Steve Lindsey, vice president of Space Exploration Systems at Sierra Nevada Corp., delivers remarks on "Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Space Exploration Update," July 10 at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati.

As for progress on the program, Lindsey reported that about 85 percent of the critical design review is complete, production on the real vehicle begins this summer, and preparations are underway for assembly, integration and testing.

SNC is also working to expand access to space globally via a program called the Dream Chaser Global Project.

“We’re really focused on commercialization,” Lindsey said.

He said very few countries have space programs because the cost of entry is so high, but that SNC wants to make access to space “roughly the price of a satellite launch.”

Participating countries are sure to benefit through advancements in research and development and education, growth in high-tech fields, new infrastructure, and national pride, Lindsey said, adding that SNC hopes “to get this thing going hopefully in the 2022 timeframe.”

A primary goal for SNC, Lindsey said, is to bring together the company’s separate endeavors, including its work on Dream Chaser; the NextSTEP-2 Gateway Habitat Prototype, which he said is due to be built by about November; and Gateway’s propulsion system, which SNC is partnering on with Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“To kind of put it all together, in my group, we’re having an opportunity — we’re working on Dream Chaser, we’re working on space station, we’re working on the lunar Gateway — and from that perspective, we’re able to see how these things connect together,” Lindsey said, referring to how the ISS connects to lunar orbit, how Gateway and the ISS may work together, and how Dream Chaser will be a part of the equation.

Lindsey pointed out that every program his group is working on is a public-private partnership, which he called “a good model for the future” and something SNC has embraced.

“It actually matches our company’s objectives, which is to commercialize low-Earth orbit, eventually commercialize lunar, and so we’re excited to be a part of it,” he said.

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