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Future spaceflight goes virtual

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser flight simulator shows the view that would be outside the cockpit windows during the mini-shuttle's approach to a landing strip.
Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser flight simulator shows the view that would be outside the cockpit windows during the mini-shuttle's approach to a landing strip.Sierra Nevada Corp.

Even though Sierra Nevada Corp.'s downsized space shuttle hasn't been built yet, future fliers can practice taking it in for a simulated landing. And among those future fliers is the boss.

Mark Sirangelo isn't just the head of Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Space Systems. He's also a licensed pilot, and he intends to take a ride on his company's Dream Chaser spaceship as early as next year during its atmospheric tests. Those tests are slated to begin next summer, with the stub-winged Dream Chaser being dropped from high altitude by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane.

If the test flights go as planned, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser could be carrying astronauts and cargo between Earth and the International Space Station in 2015 or 2016 — becoming the first winged vehicle to fly in Earth orbit since NASA's retirement of the space shuttle. By that time, there could well be other U.S. spaceships flying as well, courtesy of companies ranging from the Boeing Co. and Orbital Sciences Corp. to SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Those companies' pioneering efforts in commercial spaceflight will be among the subjects taken up this week during the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, presented in Las Cruces, N.M. This year's symposium is being held just a couple of days after the splashy dedication of Virgin Galactic's terminal building at Spaceport America, 45 miles to the north.

Sirangelo told me that this week's dedication served as another sign that the commercial space frontier was advancing. "This brings a certain reality to the idea," he said as he watched WhiteKnightTwo and its attached SpaceShipTwo rocket plane go through their maneuvers.

Sierra Nevada is Virgin Galactic's partner in more ways than one: In addition to using WhiteKnightTwo as a platform for its early tests, Sirangelo's company is manufacturing the hybrid rocket engines that are to be used in SpaceShipTwo. Those engines are now undergoing ground tests. The first in-flight tests are expected to begin within a year.

Meanwhile, the work on Dream Chaser is accelerating: This spring, NASA awarded Sierra Nevada $80 million to support the spaceship's development, and last month the space agency sweetened the deal with an extra $25.6 million for additional milestones. NASA's Kennedy Space Center struck yet another deal to make its facilities and its expertise available to Sierra Nevada.

During a recent visit to Sierra Nevada Space System's headquarters near Denver, I saw a few former NASA employees bustling through the halls, including five-time space shuttle fliers Steve Lindsey and Jim Voss (who are now executives at the company).

Another one of the ex-NASA types at Sierra Nevada is the company's simulation manager, Stokes McMillan, whoused to work on NASA's X-38 program at Johnson Space Center. "After that program was canceled, I always have looked for something like that — and here it is," McMillan told me.

McMillan's pride and joy is Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser cockpit simulator, a gizmo modeled after NASA's space shuttle simulator. It may not rock and roll like the space agency's motion-base machine, but it has big projection screens, computerized control dials and a joystick-based flight system that give you the feeling that you're actually flying. Even I was able to land the darn thing on a virtual Kennedy Space Center airstrip, with lots of coaching from McMillan.

Development of the simulator was one of the extra milestones that NASA added to Sierra Nevada's list. In the long term, the make-believe cockpit can be used to train astronauts to fly the real Dream Chaser. But in the shorter term, it will help the company's engineers fine-tune the way the spaceship handles itself and the way the instruments are arranged, with advice from the experts who'll be making all those virtual flights.

Sirangelo has flown the simulator many times, and he's looking forward to taking a seat on the real Dream Chaser in the not-too-distant future. He discussed his expectations as well as the company's aspirations during a wide-ranging interview this summer. Here's an edited excerpt:   

Cosmic Log: There are several vehicles that are being supported by NASA as part of the commercial crew development program. And I've seen one report about an Irish bookmaker who said the Dream Chaser had the best odds of flying first. How do you assess the field for this sort of market of providing NASA with these services?

Mark Sirangelo: Well, it’s not for me to comment on other people's work, but we look at the field this way: We think that NASA will have more than one provider. They have more than one provider to do cargo right now. There are two U.S. companies vying to do that, in addition to the Japanese cargo system and the Russian cargo system. There are multiple cargo systems out there. We think that, ultimately, there will be at least two, perhaps more U.S. systems brought for orbital transfer.

Very often we get asked, well, why us?  Well, if you look at space, why should space be any different from how we look at our navy or our air force or our army? There are different vehicles for different tasks. Having a lifting body capable of making a runway landing has certain attributes to it that are not present in capsules right now.

Those attributes include things such as being able to return to Earth at less than 2 G's and being able to land on a runway that's less than 10,000 feet long, being able to go right up to the vehicle after it lands to take off critical experiments, and take people off immediately.

The vehicle also has the ability to do other things in space. One of the reasons NASA got into this program to begin with was to enable commercial space, not just to provide a point-to-point solution for the space station. A lifting-body design like ours has the ability to do servicing, much as the shuttle serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. Our vehicle can stay in low-Earth orbit for many months unmanned if it needs to.  We can provide transportation to other destinations in a manner that’s very consistent with what non-professional astronauts might need.

Q: Of all the vehicles that are being funded in this phase, this is the only lifting-body, winged vehicle that looks anything like the shuttle. I've noticed that you've had former astronauts come through here - do you feel as if a lot of the people who have been involved in the NASA program have a soft spot for a winged vehicle like this?

A: We think that we’re getting an increasing amount of interest in our program for a variety of reasons.  I think the top reasons are that people with the retirement of the shuttle realized that there was a purpose for the shuttle, for its design, for what it did. I wouldn’t call it sentimental, but they realized that the people who designed that were pretty smart people.  They felt that there would be multiple missions this shuttle can do.

I think there’s also real interest in that we can make a very positive statement that many of the people who worked on the shuttle program can see those skill sets being accomplished on our program. We have to turn this around from one flight to the next, we have to do many of the same kind of things that the shuttle did, albeit in a smaller version. So some of those skill sets will transfer over.

We also think that when members of the astronaut corps look at this, they'll realize that they can still be piloting, they can still be flying a vehicle.  In the current scenario, where there are passengers on a Russian Soyuz, that skill set goes away. In our vision, we will have a commercial astronaut pilot sitting next to a NASA astronaut pilot on NASA missions.  So those people still have a place to fly, that skill set remains current within the U.S. space effort. And all that money spent to train those people continue to be relevant.

Q: There’s been some discussion about who would fly the vehicle in its operational phase. Of course, there will be test pilots who are employed by Sierra Nevada to make sure the vehicle fills the specifications. But once it enters service, who's in control of the vehicle?

A: It isn’t clear to any of us right now who’s going to fly and how it’s going to fly.  But I think there are three basic approaches to the problem.

One is that we build the vehicle, and NASA essentially leases it.  So they put NASA personnel on and NASA flies it. That certainly would be fine with us.

The second approach would be that we essentially pilot the vehicle.  We own it and we’re much like the Soyuz right now, where the Russians are in charge of the vehicle and they’re providing a seat. We provide a seat in a similar fashion to NASA. Instead of flying on a Russian vehicle, putting money into the Russian space program, we’re putting that money into the U.S. space program,  and we’re providing transportation underneath our own management.

We also have come up with a third approach, and it’s one that we particularly like. It’s taking the page out of the maritime industry, where large ships are often piloted across the waters by a captain who is employed by the company who owns the tanker or the cargo ship. When the ship gets to a major port, there’s a harbor pilot who comes out to take that ship in, who knows the harbor very well. Similarly speaking, we think the NASA astronaut pilots know the space station. NASA might feel more comfortable having a NASA astronaut pilot do the proximity operations around the space station, including docking. We might in fact have our pilot do the launch and take off and put it into orbit, and I believe NASA pilot take over when that ship needs to dock to the space station.  That would balance the skill sets on both sides and provide another level of safety, and another level of interaction with NASA.

Q: Interesting ... when you look at the stimulator that you have set up, it’s very similar to how a shuttle simulator looks. Is that intentional, in that you want to preserve the handling of the shuttle, or is it just an outgrowth of the design, because it’s a vehicle that’s designed similarly to the shuttle.

A: When you walk into the simulator, you’ll see that there are very similar aspects to what is going on with the space shuttle, and that’s not by chance. Many, many years of work has gone into how to lay out vehicles, and we are learning from that, we are absorbing that. We are adding significantly new technologies to the vehicle, so it has the blending of what’s going on currently in the field of aviation technology as well as some of the tried-and-true design methods that have been used before. Anyone who comes into that who has experience flying high-performance aircraft or flying the shuttle or flying modern commercial aviation aircraft will feel very comfortable behind the stick. And that is by intent.

We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.  We are trying to take the best of the past and marry it with the best of the future, and put it together into one vehicle. ...

Q: I'm guessing that when you got started in business, you did not anticipate that you’d be working on a spaceship. Did you think that you would be working on this sort of vehicle?

A: It’s interesting. I think many of the people on the program, myself included, have always believed that we would do something in space. I have been a pilot for a long time, and I continue to fly. One of the jokes around my family was that the next thing we were going to be doing would be Mark going to space at some point in time. This is as much a passion for me as it is for anyone else. I hope to be in one of the first vehicles. We are going to be flying the vehicles before we ever put any NASA people onboard. And if there are something wrong, we’ll be the first ones to know about it.

This is not done merely as some business activity. This is done as a personal passion. Throughout the organization, the hundreds of people who are now working on this are doing it because they believe in this program, and they believe in the partnership with NASA that we have. Someday I’ll be flying the vehicle alongside, I hope, a number of people from NASA.

Q: When do you anticipate that day will come?

A: We will start doing our drop test of the Dream Chaser in 2012. First schedule is to start doing what we call an atmospheric drop test, taking it up to a high altitude and letting it go and then piloting it down to make sure that the vehicle has all the necessary characteristics to allow to act as a piloted vehicle. In the following year, we’ll begin doing our suborbital tests, and then starting in 2014, going into 2015, we’ll be doing orbital tests, first as an unmanned vehicle and then as a manned vehicle. I hope and I think many of us will be participating in that test schedule between now and then.

Q: So in the 2015 timeframe, once the manned orbital tests begin, is that when you would get your ticket?

A: I would expect that I would be part of the drop test program and the suborbital program. We have a small group of people who have experience in flying who are going to be part of that.

Q: So that could be next year?

A: It could be next year, or early 2013.

Q: So how do you feel about that? it sounds as if you’re looking forward to it.

A: Oh, yeah. I can’t say how excited we all are to be able to go back and see hardware, to touch the vehicle now that’s been on paper for so long. Seeing that the first vehicle is well into production really gets your heart going. It makes you realize why you are doing this.

Stay tuned for more reports about the space frontier from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight on Wednesday and Thursday. We'll also be featuring some of the leaders of the private-sector space effort, including Sirangelo as well as SpaceX's Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, in an upcoming installment of our "Future of Technology" series.

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