Lockheed Martin partners on Dream Chaser

LOUISVILLE – It still will be a long journey between Louisville and the International Space Station, but Sierra Nevada Corp. has found one of the world’s largest aerospace companies to help it make the trip.

SNC is the privately owned aerospace company developing the Dream Chaser spacecraft in Louisville. On Wednesday, it announced it has formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT) to build the spacecraft’s body.

The Dream Chaser is intended to carry a crew of up to seven astronauts to low Earth orbit. The vehicle launches atop a rocket, but glides to a landing on its return. SNC is pushing to have the vehicle fully operational and ready for space sometime in 2017.

SNC is designing and building the vehicle, which it likens to the now-retired Space Shuttle’s “little brother,” at its space systems division headquarters in Louisville. About 150 employees are working on Dream Chaser, with most based in Louisville.

NASA is supporting the Dream Chaser with contracts from programs developed to encourage the commercial space industry. So far, the agency has committed more than $220 million.

NASA potentially is the company’s largest client and would use the vehicle for trips to the International Space Station, but the Dream Chaser will be capable of other missions for other customers, said Mark Sirangelo, the vice president in charge of SNC’s Space Systems unit.

The Dream Chaser currently sits in Louisville, where technicians are installing its landing gears and avionics systems, Dream Chaser program manager Jim Voss said. The vehicle is being shipped to Edwards Air Force Base in California to test its gliding and landing ability in a few weeks, Voss said.

Lockheed Martin will be SNC’s exclusive partner for the NASA Certification Products Contract, a $10 million contract for tests to determine if the Dream Chaser is flight worthy.

Lockheed Martin will build the Dream Chaser’s body at a NASA facility in New Orleans. The advanced composite materials that will be used in the structure will be similar to those used in the F-35 Lighting II fighter jet Lockheed Martin is building, said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of the civil space division of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

The Dream Chaser must complete several safety and performance tests before it can launch, and Sierra Nevada also will draw on lessons Lockheed Martin learned in developing and certifying its Orion space capsule, Sirangelo said.

Testing will be a multistage operation conducted over several years, he said. Multiple test vehicles will be built. The latest vehicle, which a helicopter flew above the Boulder area last spring as part of a test, will be carried into the air by a helicopter, released and landed by remote control.

The first version Lockheed Martin will build will be piloted, and it will be followed by another unmanned vehicle to be used for the final rigorous tests needed before the vehicle can carry astronauts into orbit.

Ultimately, the tests will determine if SNC reaches its goal “to make sure we’re building the safest spacecraft that’s ever been built,” Voss said.

As the program advances, more operations will take place outside Colorado. SNC plans to launch, land and refurbish Dream Chaser at a yet-to-be determined base on Florida’s “Space Coast” near Cape Canaveral. The primary flight control center will be in Houston.

SNC personnel in Louisville will continue with design and assembly work, Sirangelo said.

“The ongoing work here in Colorado is going to be significant for many, many years,” Sirangelo said.

SNC executives think they can hit their 2017 goal, but much depends on the results of the tests.  

“We’ll fly when it’s ready,” Sirangelo said as he declined to give a projected launch date. “A lot of people want one, but that’s not how it works.”

Money from NASA also is needed and will affect the timeline. SNC’s NASA contracts were won in a competitive process and are contingent on it hitting performance milestones.

Dream Chaser is one of three vehicles competing to become the next generation of vehicles NASA relies on for manned missions. Aerospace heavyweight Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and upstart Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are each building competing capsules. The Dream Chaser is the only vehicle that would be piloted and able to land on runways, and Sirangelo thinks it will give it the edge.

SNC is a privately held company, and it will not disclose how much it has invested in Dream Chaser or how much it ultimately could cost. Voss said the project would be more expensive than what it cost to develop commercial-built cargo vehicles because of the life support systems needed for crew. Comparing Dream Chaser to other commercial programs, Voss said the final amount likely will exceed $1 billion.

Like other aerospace companies, SNC could be affected by cuts to the federal budget that are being negotiated now by Congress. How the cuts could affect NASA’s budget is unclear, Voss said.

“It’s really expensive to go to space. We’d have to find other sources of funding. We’re optimistically expecting NASA is going to continue funding it, but if that fails, we’re not going to stop work. We’re going to seek and find other sources of money,” he said.

Other financial terms, such as the amount SNC has invested in Dream Chaser and the nature of Lockheed Martin’s financial involvement, were not disclosed.

The Dream Chaser would be launched by the Atlas V rocket, which is built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance LLC. The company is a joint partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

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