NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver Tours Dream Chaser

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver with Dream Chaser. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

When the Shuttle retires in just a couple of months, NASA will be forced to bum rides off its former arch rival, the Russian Space Agency, to the tune of $63 million a seat.

That’s because the ship that was to replace the Shuttle has gotten itself billions of dollars in the hole with not much to show for itself. That situation is unlikely to change, despite the insistences of politicians who don’t want to see all that pork leave their states. Keeping the money flowing and the contractors employed is really the point of the walking dead Constellation program more than building on America’s legacy in space.

Happily some foresighted folks at NASA and in the Obama administration see a way to keep the country flying by chartering flights on commercial American spaceships rather than dictating how they will be built and owning them outright. NASA has just awarded a total of $269.3 million to four companies as seed money to foster development of new ships. One of these companies is Sierra Nevada Corporation, which got $80 million to help develop its planned Dream Chaser spaceship.

I spoke with Sierra Nevada president Mark Sirangelo about Dream Chaser and what the award will mean for its development.

One of the keys to success for these private efforts is that they be able to kick in a significant amount of their own funds rather than just relying on unreliable and encumbered government money. While Sirangelo wouldn’t cite specific figures, he told me that Sierra Nevada was able to more than match NASA’s $20 million previous round of financing for Dream Chaser. Again without getting specific, Sirangelo says his company will continue major investment in Dream Chase to go along with this second round of NASA financing.

“It’s a significant investment. We were actually cited by NASA in the award for the extent of our partnership with them, which essentially means our investment. It’s a big deal for us. It’s not just making the statement that we’re co-investing. We want to get this thing moving and flying as soon as possible. We’re not a small company. We have about 2,220 people in the organization and we’re about a billion-four in revenue. But we’re privately owned. We don’t have any outside investors and we don’t have any banks; we don’t owe anybody any money. So we don’t have any need to go out and publicize the things we do in that way.”

The ship is a seven-seat, all-carbon-fiber lifting body derived from a cancelled NASA program called the HL-20 that was conceived as a lifeboat for the International Space Station. Onboard hybrid solid-and-liquid-fueled rocket motors will give the ship a 1,500 kilometer cross-range capability on its powered landings and the ability to touch down at just about any airport.

NASA’s $80 million will help fund Dream Chaser development to May 2012 for building a manned flight test vehicle and drop-testing it from the Scaled Composites-built White Knight aircraft. The following year, Sierra Nevada plans to boost the craft to powered suborbital flights, and in 2014, to fly the ship to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. Sirangelo says his company can match the Russian per-seat asking price.