Sierra Nevada Space Systems in Louisville announced on Tuesday that it is talking with an agency of the United Nations about using its Dream Chaser reusable orbital spacecraft to host payloads from U.N. member countries. (Courtesy Sierra Nevada Corp.)

Hiring likely soon at Sierra Nevada Space Systems thanks to NASA contract

LOUISVILLE — More jobs are likely to be added soon at Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems division in Louisville, officials said Friday, now that the company won a NASA contract this week to provide cargo delivery, return and disposal services for the International Space Station with an unmanned version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft.

“We do expect to expand the workforce gradually as we determine what NASA’s schedule is,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for space systems, in a conference call on Friday morning. “Some of those people will begin to come on shortly.”

He added that the contract also is likely to mean more hiring at Sierra Nevada’s partners on the Dream Chaser spacecraft project, including Colorado facilities of Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance.

SNC’s Louisville facility had laid off about 90 employees from the Dream Chaser program in September 2014 after the company lost a $6.8 billion total contract for the craft, which would have shuttled astronauts to the space station. The company responded to that disappointment, however, by developing a more versatile, unmanned cargo-only version of Dream Chaser with folding wings and an added unpressurized cargo module attached to the back.

“This is a huge win for us emotionally,” Sirangelo said. “It’s been a long road. It wasn’t necessarily the end of the world if we didn’t win. We were looking at working with other clients, but with this contract, we can make the commitment to build the vehicle. It is a big deal. In some ways, it’s like getting an anchor tenant in a shopping mall.”

Sirangelo hinted that some of those laid-off workers in Louisville could be recalled, noting that the timing of any hiring depended on what NASA wants and when. But he emphasized that the Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract to transport pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station through 2024 guarantees Sierra Nevada a minimum of six flights — “and the operative word is minimum. We can build as many of the vehicles as demand is needed.”

Steve Lindsey, the Space Systems division’s senior director of programs who has flown on five space shuttle missions, said the contract for an uncrewed Dream Chaser is by no means a death knell for the version that can carry humans to and from the space station and, in fact, can help Sierra Nevada sell that version for future contracts.

“The crewed variant has 85 percent commonality with the cargoed version,” he said. “All of the things we do on the cargoed version, we’ll use on the crewed version. This contract will demonstrate its capabilities, get some heritage behind it.”

“Within a few short years, the world will once again see a United States winged vehicle launch and return from space to a runway landing,” Sirangelo said. “We wanted to thank our more than 30 industry, university, international and NASA center partners for helping us make history and open up the next generation of spaceflight.”

The craft’s first flight, carried into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., will likely be in the second half of 2019, he said. Although the Dream Chaser generally would land near the launch site, Sirangelo said, “it can land at any airport that can take a 737. That’s part of our emotional contract — bringing the space program to the people.”