July 02, 2012
Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp. Concept
Frank Morring, Jr. Louisville, Colo.
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.