After NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011, it opened the door for private companies to compete in developing the future of space travel, including a local company that hopes to play a crucial role.
The Sierra Nevada Corporation, with facilities in Durham and Fayetteville, is trying to put its Dream Chaser into space in the next 2 years. The hope is that NASA will pick the company’s spacecraft for its Commercial Crew Program.
The basic requirement of the program is to safely transport people and cargo to and from the International Space Station.
Sierra Nevada program manager Charles Hodges explained that astronauts currently “hitch a ride with the Russians on the Soyuz vehicle” to ISS.
“We pay them $70 million a seat to take astronauts to the space station and return them home,” Hodges said.
Sierra Nevada is one of three companies in the spacecraft war to return the missions to U.S. soil. The company hopes the means to do that will be its Dream Chaser, which is being developed at Sierra Nevada plants across the country.
In Durham, the company is developing crucial components to make sure the Dream Chaser has a safe landing back to earth.
“What we are doing here in Durham is developing the flight control actuators,” Hodges said. “These are actuators that move the rudder, and move the ailerons and the flaps on the vehicle so it can be flown — so that it can be steered through the atmosphere.”
The technology isn’t only crucial, it is also what sets the Dream Chaser apart from its competition.
“Most of the other vehicles being considered are capsules. They come in on a parachute, they land in the water, a ship has to go and pick them up,” Hodges said. “Dream Chaser is unique in that it is a flyable vehicle.”
Hodges explained that the flight control actuator allows the spacecraft to land on any airstrip that a commercial airliner can land on.
“So you could actually land it on Raleigh-Durham airport,” he said.
The parts are in the engineering phase with manufacturing beginning later this year. To ensure that the job is done right, the parts are assembled in what’s called the “clean room.”
“To be sure that nothing gets into the actuator that doesn’t belong there [that could] cause it not to operate properly,” Hodges said.
After the part is built, Sierra Nevada’s team will then put it through a thermal vacuum chamber to simulate the environment in space. In the chamber, the air is sucked out and the parts are tested in very hot and very cold conditions.
It is also assessed under extreme vibrations.
Only then do the components make the cut to eventually be installed on the Dream Chaser.
The goal for the Dream Chaser is to have its first unmanned test flight in 2016 with a first flight with a crew to follow in 2017.
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