Sierra Nevada Corp. plans to develop its Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle despite its loss to Boeing and SpaceX in the three-way NASA competition for contracts to take the development to flight test and operations.

The company has built an international network of partners and potential customers, including the European Space Agency (ESA), German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Mark Sirangelo, who heads the company’s Space Systems unit in Louisville, Colorado, said Sept. 25 that Sierra Nevada will bid on the second-round NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

He also said the company may file a formal protest of NASA’s decision to reject its commercial crew bid with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The deadline for a bid protest, which could lead to a reconsideration of the contract awards, is Sept. 26, and Sirangelo suggested Sierra Nevada may have financial and technical grounds for the action. A final corporate decision, in consultation with the company’s lawyers, was planned following a meeting Sept. 25.

Despite the plans to move ahead with development of the Dream Chaser, a lifting-body reusable spaceplane based on NASA’s canceled HL-20 testbed, the company laid off about 90 employees Sept. 24 in response to the NASA decision, which was announced Sept. 17. Sirangelo said those laid off were hired in anticipation of winning the contract, and the slots could be filled again as the development moves forward.

"All the companies submitted an acceptable contract with their proposal, which meant you could start very quickly," Sirangelo said. "Because of that we had to say ‘We can’t wait until contract announcement to start hiring people; we have to go out and start gearing up ahead of time.’ So we did that, and we hired about 120, 130 people who came on board knowing that their jobs were contingent on the win. Those people we did lay off yesterday, but that still leaves a very significant core team."

The layoffs hit about 9% of the company’s Colorado workforce, he said. Over the past five years that workforce has grown from about 200 to more than 1,100, according to company figures.

The company still has NASA funding under earlier phases of the agency’s commercial crew development effort, and that work will continue as planned. Overall, Sirangelo says, Sierra Nevada is in good shape financially to continue Dream Chaser development in association with its partners. In addition to ESA, DLR and JAXA, industrial partners on the project include Lockheed Martin, which has built a flight-hardware composite structure for the first orbital Dream Chaser; United Launch Alliance, which would launch Dream Chaser on an Atlas V; Aerojet Rocketdyne, MacDonald Dettwiler, Jacobs, Moog, Siemens PLM Software, and Southwest Research Institute, according to the company website.