When the Dream Chaser spacecraft makes its first low-earth orbital flight in two years, it will carry some Fort Worth craftmanship.
Lockheed Martin is building the composite airframe of the crew and cargo cabin at its west Fort Worth fighter jet plant for Sierra Nevada Corp., one of three companies vying for NASA’s program to return astronauts to the International Space Station.
Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems unit, called the Dream Chaser a 1,500-ton “space utility vehicle.” It will fly at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, which means it could cross Texas in about five minutes and go around the world in 90 minutes, he said. It is about the size of a regional jet.
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The Dream Chaser, which spans 30 feet from front to back and 30 feet from wing to wing, is large enough to carry seven crew members and cargo. It is a direct descendant of NASA’s retired space shuttle, but on a much smaller scale, Sirangelo said.
“It’s a little brother to the big brother,” he said. The Dream Chaser will bring crew and cargo, or any combination of, back and forth to the space station “in a more efficient manner and a more rapid manner, and in a manner that allows us to do more things in the space world.”
That could mean ferrying experiments back and forth, or equipment to make repairs on satellites, several times a year, he said.
“This vehicle is quite special,” Sirangelo said. “We are able to take off and land on a runway. We are able to land on a runway that a 737 can land on, which means we can come back here and land in Texas.”
Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Md., is one of several companies working on the Dream Chaser project. Lockheed facilities in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Colorado are involved in such things as making parts and testing the spacecraft. Some of those pieces are shipped to Fort Worth and what’s finished here is transported to Sierra Nevada’s Louisville, Colo., facility for final assembly.
Sierra Nevada said it has 30 companies in 32 states working on the Dream Chaser, and it is working with nine universities and nine NASA centers.
“We are delighted at Lockheed Martin to be a member of the Dream Chaser dream team,” said Jim Crocker, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems division. “Being a part of the strategic partnership that is allowing us to return American astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil is very, very exciting.”
In Fort Worth, with extreme precision, the composite materials are placed in a mold and baked in a huge 20-foot, 400-degree oven for 24 hours. Lockheed is using many of the same technologies it used to build F-22 Raptor and F-35 fighter jets.
“This will be the fastest piece of hardware to come out of this building,” Crocker said. “We’re leveraging the affordability and efficiencies that come from being able to leverage technology that we have unique expertise in.”
In October, Sierra Nevada performed its first free flight of the spacecraft. On Nov. 1, 2016, it plans to launch its second vehicle from Florida for an unmanned low-earth orbital test. Manned tests are planned for 2017. The International Space Station is about 220 miles from earth.
NASA discontinued the space shuttles in 2011, but is working to find a private company it can partner with to bring that capability back to the U.S. Now, NASA buys space on the Russian Soyuz to get its astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station.
Sirangelo said his company envisions a fleet of three to five Dream Chasers. Each space plane will likely run about 30 missions each, and be flown about four to six times a year, he said.
Boeing, based in Seattle, and Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., are also competing for the NASA contract.