Like some of its billionaire competitors in the race to build commercial vehicles to take humans to orbit, Sierra Nevada Corp. is taking advantage of its private-company status to build its Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane.

One of the first winners in NASA's effort to seed a commercial space transport industry with federal funds, the 2,200-strong company is leveraging its experience with aircraft modification and autonomous flight-control systems to develop a vehicle designed to carry seven crew to the International Space Station (ISS) atop an expendable launch vehicle, return to a runway landing virtually anywhere a Boeing 737 can land, and do it again as soon as another rocket is ready.

The company is owned by its management and plows a lot of the profits it makes on aircraft, small satellites and spacecraft components back into the business. The model has won it $125 million in Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) funding from NASA, matching that with almost the same in internal funds to push the Dream Chaser through preliminary design review and probably to a good shot at another infusion of NASA funds this summer. At that pace, operational flights could come as early as 2016, according to Mark Sirangelo, who pieced together the company's space division five years ago in a creative merger with his former business.

“Because we're private and because we don't have any outside investors or venture capitalists and no long-term debt, we're able to reinvest a lot of capital into the business,” he said in an interview at the space division's newly remodeled facility in an office park here. “We carry about twice the industry average in R&D budget.”

Sierra Nevada is not alone in that approach. SpaceX, initially bankrolled by dot.com entrepreneur Elon Musk, has already flown its Dragon commercial cargo capsule to the ISS with funds from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and is another top contender for the next tranche of CCDev funding.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has set up Blue Origin to build an orbital crew vehicle that has also drawn CCDev funding.

Sirangelo believes the Dream Chaser will have advantages over the competition, which also includes the Boeing CST-100 capsule. Three companies working with NASA under unfunded Space Act agreements also are in the running.

Primary among those advantages, at least at first, will be Sierra Nevada's ability to support space-station research with substantial “down-mass” capability and low-g runway landings.

“The idea of bringing something home to a soft landing on a runway and getting access to it almost immediately became pretty enticing for science,” he says.

Beyond that, Sierra Nevada wants to make the Dream Chaser as utilitarian as possible to exploit potential new markets, including delivering cargo as well as crew to orbit, remaining there as a free-flying autonomous research platform, and servicing satellites.

Sirangelo says Dream Chaser will be “an SUV” to the space shuttle's moving van—it can add or remove seats as needed for hauling and other jobs.

The vehicle's composite structure will allow the company to build additional vehicles for cargo and other applications relatively inexpensively, since the molds already have been built and used to shape engineering and atmospheric test vehicles. In a fine irony, the lifting-body shape those molds reflect has heritage that goes back to the Soviet BOR-4 subscale spaceplane that once figured prominently in the Soviet Military Power yearbook published during the Cold War by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

NASA based its HL-20 experimental lifting body on the Soviet craft, and the Dream Chaser retained the outer mold line to take advantage of the data generated by 1,200 wind-tunnel tests NASA ran on that vehicle, Sirangelo says. The resulting commercial vehicle will be well positioned to compete with the Russian Soyuz capsule, developed by the same Soviet aerospace industry that produced the BOR-4, as well as with the U.S. competition.

“We're not trying to create new science here,” says Sirangelo. “We're trying to create a reliable, safe, predictable, reusable system.”

Like Boeing and Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada chose the Atlas V as its initial launcher, although in the longer term Sirangelo stresses that his company is “rocket agnostic” and willing to use other vehicles if it makes sense. However, the 402 variant of the Atlas V that the Dream Chaser would ride has no solid-fuel booster, which is a safety consideration, and is part of a family of rockets that has flown without failure 32 times.

Riding without a fairing on top of the two-stage launch vehicle, the Dream Chaser would rely on its hybrid-propulsion motors to “fly off” the Atlas in the event of a failure on ascent, or use them for in-space propulsion en route to its orbital destination. Virgin Galactic has bought similar motors from Sierra Nevada for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourist/researcher vehicle.

Sirangelo brought the hybrid motor technology, which uses a stable rubber compound for fuel, with him to Sierra Nevada from SpaceDev Inc. when, as CEO, he merged with the aviation specialist and took over as head of its new space portfolio.

In addition to the hybrid propulsion technology it acquired from the old American Rocket Co., the new space unit also folded in Starsys Research—a thermal actuator shop that branched into electromechanical actuators, deployable structures and other mechanical spacecraft components—and MicroSat Systems Inc., a smallsat house that played an important role in the U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space effort.

“As a company we've had 405 missions to space,” says Sirangelo. “We're actually launching something we've built for space about every three weeks.”

A lot of that hardware is at the component level, but some of the components are relatively advanced. The company developed and built the braking mechanism that will lower NASA's Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars from a hovering platform next month in the untried Sky Crane approach (AW&ST Aug. 1, 2011, p. 38). That experience—as well as familiarity with government and commercial players across the space industry—has helped the company put together a team that includes seven NASA field centers and a host of component suppliers as it gathers and tests the pieces that will make up the Dream Chaser. Unlike SpaceX, which has moved as much component fabrication as possible in-house, Sierra Nevada usually goes outside for equipment it does not already manufacture.

That is in keeping with its keep-it-simple philosophy. The spaceplane's thermal protection system, for example, will use upgraded versions of the same materials used on the space shuttle, and its landing gear will come right out of the aviation industry.

Testing of the atmospheric vehicle got underway with captive-carry tests at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near here (AW&ST June 4, p. 14). The test article will soon be shipped to California for another captive-carry test at Edwards AFB, followed by a drop test from 10,000 ft. that will send it through an autonomous glide and landing.

Subsequent tests will include a high-altitude atmospheric drop and suborbital flight and reentry with an as-yet-undisclosed launch vehicle.

Operational flights will originate at Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., where the company has selected a surplus facility at the Kennedy Space Center for vehicle processing. Normally it will return to the shuttle landing strip on KSC, although Sirangelo says it can land elsewhere and return to Florida as airfreight.

For ISS missions, the Dream Chaser will rendezvous and dock much like the space shuttles did, except that its two pilots will back the vehicle up to the pressurized mating adaptor on the Harmony Node, and the crew will enter the station through an aft hatch.

Still to be determined is the makeup of the crew. NASA has considered both the rental-car model for its commercial crew missions, where it leases the whole vehicle and uses its own astronauts to fly it, and the taxi model that uses astronauts hired by the commercial service providers. For Dream Chaser a third possibility might be what Sirangelo calls the harbor-pilot approach. A company pilot would handle launch and reentry, while a NASA astronaut would control the docking.

Sirangelo—and his competitors—will find out what comes next by the end of the summer, when NASA is expected to select three potential commercial crew vehicles for 21-month Commercial Crew Integrated Capacity (CCiCap) Space Act agreements under a deal worked out with Congress (AW&ST June 25, p. 35). Given the investment the space agency already has made in Dream Chaser, and the capabilities it offers over the capsules the other competitors are offering, there is a good chance Sierra Nevada will be in the winner's circle. If it works out that way, Sirangelo says it will be testimony to the approach his company has taken since—as SpaceDev—it started working on the Dream Chaser concept eight years go.

“It's a different model,” he says. “If you're chasing stock price and quarterly returns, going on an eight-year journey to build an orbital spacecraft is a bit of a challenge.”