Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sierra Nevada to Fly Dream Chaser on Stratolaunch

A computer animation of a Stratolaunch mission with an Orbital Sciences payload. Video source: Vulcan Inc. YouTube channel.

Confirming a report tweeted earlier today by Jeff Foust at Space News, Sierra Nevada Corporation issued a press release this afternoon announcing that a scale version of Dream Chaser will be developed to fly on the Stratolaunch.

As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC’s full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Chuck Beames, president, Vulcan Aerospace Corp and executive director for Stratolaunch Systems said, “Combining a scaled version of SNC’s Dream Chaser with the Stratolaunch air launch system could provide a highly responsive capability with the potential to reach a variety of LEO destinations and return astronauts or payloads to a U.S. runway within 24 hours.”

“This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

In addition to supporting development of human spaceflight capability, SNC studied satellite launch options and mechanisms, as well as point-to-point transportation options using the Stratolaunch launch system with a Dream Chaser spacecraft derivative. The Stratolaunch system is uniquely designed to allow for maximum operational flexibility and payload delivery from several possible operational sites, while minimizing mission constraints such as range availability and weather.

This post will be updated tomorrow once more information is available.

UPDATE October 1, 2014 9:40 AM EDTAlan Boyle at NBC News releases the first artist's concept of the Dream Chaser/Stratolaunch combo.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Retro Saturday: Message to Employees of NACA

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Jeff Quitney YouTube channel.

On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act.

In his signing statement, Eisenhower wrote:

The present National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), with its large and competent staff and well-equipped laboratories, will provide the nucleus for the NASA. The NACA has an established record of research performance and of cooperation with the Armed Services. The combination of space exploration responsibilities with the NACA's traditional aeronautical research functions is a natural evolution.

NASA would officially begin on October 1, 1958, a little more than two months later.

In honor of NASA's pending birthday next week, Retro Saturday presents a ten-minute film prepared for NACA employees on the eve of their agency's demise.

Hugh Dryden, the Director of NACA, introduces the viewer to T. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator. Dryden remained as deputy administrator, and was involved in the internal debates in the spring of 1961 when the Kennedy administration decided to propose a manned lunar program.

The film, apparently produced in September 1958, was to reassure NACA employees as to their role in the new NASA.

Click here to read the Eisenhower Library archives on the creation of NASA.

President Eisenhower commissions Dr. T. Keith Glennan, right, as the first administrator for NASA and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden as deputy administrator. Image source: NASA.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Try, Try Again

Click the arrow to watch a 2012 Dream Chaser concept of operations animation. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

Ten days after NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX as their commercial crew vendors, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced today in a press release that the company has filed a legal challenge with the Government Accountability Office to challenge the decision.

In its 51 year history SNC has never filed a legal challenge to a government contract award. However, in the case of the CCtCap award, NASA’s own Source Selection Statement and debrief indicate that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process. SNC, therefore, feels that there is no alternative but to institute a legal challenge.

During the September 16 announcement, NASA officials declined to comment on the merits of the three proposals, saying that would have to wait until after the competitors were briefed.

Apparently SNC got its briefing. The press release states:

Importantly, the official NASA solicitation for the CCtCap contract prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria for the proposals, setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance. SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition. SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals. In fact, out of a possible 1,000 total points, the highest ranked and lowest ranked offerors were separated by a minor amount of total points and other factors were equally comparable.

How could SNC knows its proposal was "the second lowest priced" unless they'd been briefed about all three proposals? Unless they're guessing, based on the announced awards to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion).

If the latter is true, then as I wrote on September 17 the total dollar amounts are fairly meaningless, because each involves unique tests and “special studies,” as well as the assumption that each vendor receives the maximum six flights. Each vendor is guaranteed only two, and each mission will be a separate work order.

According to Aviation Week:

The company said late Friday that its bid in the NASA Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) was $900 million less than the bid submitted by Boeing, which won a contract worth as much as $4.2 billion to complete development, test fly and operate its CST-100 crew capsule. At the same time, SNC said, its proposal was “near equivalent [in] technical and past performance” source-selection scoring.

If one wants to indulge in fanciful speculation and assume NASA management capable of Machiavellianism, we can amuse ourselves with the notion that NASA deliberately violated federal procurement guidelines in selecting Boeing, knowing that if they'd gone with SNC then key Congressional porkers on the House and Senate space subcommittees who receive generous campaign contributions from Boeing would howl. If the GAO finds that SNC deserved the second contract, then Congress can't blame NASA, only the GAO.

No, I don't think so, either. Just indulging a fancy.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, NASA issued a press release today announcing a Request For Proposals for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 RFP, NASA intends to award contracts with one or more companies for six or more flights per contract. As with current resupply flights, these missions would launch from U.S. spaceports, and the contracted services would include logistical and research cargo delivery and return to and from the space station through fiscal year 2020, with the option to purchase additional launches through 2024 ...

This RFP is open to companies able to demonstrate safe, reliable launch and rendezvous capabilities with the station. The contract will fulfill NASA's need to procure cargo delivery services for pressurized and unpressurized cargo delivery, disposal, return, or any combination, to the space station using U.S. commercial carriers after the initial Commercial Resupply Service contracts conclude.

SNC has proposed autonomous cargo or mixed crew/cargo versions of Dream Chaser, possibly in partnership with the European Space Agency or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently deliver cargo to the ISS. The Orbital Sciences Cygnus burns up on re-entry, so it's used to dispose of trash and hazardous waste generated by ISS operations. SpaceX is the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning significant amounts of experiments, samples, and parts from the ISS. (The Russian Soyuz has a very small cargo capability.) The SpaceX Dragon currently lands in the ocean; after its May 2014 splashdown Dragon suffered a small amount of seawater seepage into the vehicle, although no cargo was damaged.

Dream Chaser theoretically can land at any runway of significant length, and would probably be a much smoother landing for sensitive biological cargo than bobbing about in the ocean.

But SpaceX is working on a crew version of Dragon that would land at a Cape Canaveral pad using thrusters and landing legs. That technology logically could transfer to cargo Dragon landings.

Ain't competition grand.

Round 2 proposals are due on November 14, with selections anticipated by May 2015.

Dream Chaser is alive and well, temporarily on life support thanks to international partners. The new commercial cargo competition might result in the “baby orbiter” launching from Cape Canaveral after all.

UPDATE September 27, 2014Jeff Foust of Space News reports that, “Under government procurement regulations, NASA has 30 days to file a response to the protest. GAO is required to rule on the protest no later than 100 days after filing, or Jan. 5, 2015.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sierra Nevada Still Chasing the Dream

An artist's concept of the Dream Chaser in orbit. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Aviation Week reports that Sierra Nevada Corporation may file an appeal to protest their loss of a NASA commercial crew award earlier this month.

[SNC Corporate Vice President of Space Systems Mark Sirangelo] said the company may file a formal protest of NASA’s decision to reject its commercial crew bid with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The deadline for a bid protest, which could lead to a reconsideration of the contract awards, is Sept. 26, and Sirangelo suggested Sierra Nevada may have financial and technical grounds for the action. A final corporate decision, in consultation with the company’s lawyers, was planned following a meeting Sept. 25.

SNC still has development deals with the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The article quoted Sirangelo as saying that “Sierra Nevada will bid on the second-round NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.” SNC has proposed various versions of Dream Chaser, including a strictly autonomous version that could serve an orbital microgravity laboratory and land by remote control.

The Denver Post reports that SNC “laid off about 90 employees from its Dream Chaser program” after losing the NASA contract bid.

Space Systems chief Mark Sirangelo said many of those let go had been hired in anticipation of the NASA contract.

“We did do a workforce reduction, but it was a relatively minor one compared to what it might have been,” he said.

The layoffs represent a 9.4 percent reduction in Space Systems' Colorado workforce, he said. Sirangelo said the laid-off workers will receive severance, but he would not disclose details of the package.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Station to Station

Click the arrow to watch the live chat. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Astronaut Cady Coleman was at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting today in New York City to participate in a live chat with former President Bill Clinton and the International Space Station crew.

ISS crew member Reid Wiseman noted his German and Russian crewmates, and said they have become his best friends. Clinton suggested sending Congress to ISS to learn that lesson; Coleman jokingly asked if he'd want them back.