Lockheed Martin is working on a mini space shuttle

03/26/2014 10:42 AM

03/26/2014 3:36 PM

Lockheed Martin is working on a space shuttle again, but this time it’s a privately built, much smaller version.

The aerospace giant is working on parts for the Dream Chaser, a mini-shuttle designed to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

It’s one of a number of space-related projects underway at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, where about 5,000 people built fuel tanks for the space shuttle program starting in the 1980s. NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, and Lockheed Martin built the last fuel tank in 2010.

“It’s great to see the lights back on,” Jim Crocker, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Co., said Tuesday.

The company, which is based in Bethesda, Md., and builds fighter jets in west Fort Worth, is working for Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., one of three companies picked in 2012 to build small spacecraft to take astronauts to the space station.

Louisiana and 29 other states have Dream Catcher contracts, Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, said at a news conference. He said workers at Michoud will build composite structures for the craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test orbital launch Nov. 1, 2016.

“About nine months later, we’ll have its first crewed demonstration,” Sirangelo said.

Lockheed Martin will make the wings, rudder and internal braces, said Robert Biggs, the company’s program manager for structural fabrication. He said about 15 people are working on the project.

Sierra Nevada’s design, which could be flown without a pilot, is based on an old NASA test ship. It looks like a baby version of the retired space shuttle, but its stubby wings are angled upward.

The Dream Chaser is 30 feet from nose to tail and wingtip to wingtip; its outline could fit on a shuttle’s wing with room to spare.

Still, its seven-person cabin is about as big as the shuttle’s, Sirangelo said.

“The shuttle is like a moving van,” he said, with a small cabin and big cargo area. Now that the space station is built, “you don’t need a moving van. You need an SUV.”

Like an SUV, he said, the cabin has seats that can be folded down for cargo space.

He envisions a fleet of Dream Chasers, with uses that may include serving as space laboratories and carrying people or robots up to fix satellites.

The other two companies competing for NASA ferry contracts are Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif. Both are building capsules like those of the Apollo era, rather than shuttles.

“We are the only space-plane version,” Sirangelo said.

Lockheed Martin, which built more than 100 external tanks for the shuttle at Michoud, announced about a year ago that it would be building 88-foot-long tanks there for liquefied natural gas storage and transportation.

It is also building Orion crew capsules for flights that NASA hopes to send someday to an asteroid and Mars.

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