Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sierra Nevada, ESA Formally Announce Partnership

Click the arrow to watch this August 2012 video on YouTube. Video source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Back in December I wrote about a possible deal between Sierra Nevada and German companies to study potential uses of the Dream Chaser by European space agenies.

That deal became formal today, as ESA and Sierra Nevada announced a deal “to identify areas of collaboration with European industry for developing hardware and mission concepts for the Dream Chaser orbital transportation system.”

According to the ESA press release:

ESA will work with Sierra Nevada Corporation to identify how European hardware, software and expertise can be used to further the capabilities of the Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle. ESA and SNC will also study the possibilities for creating an industrial consortium including European partners to use Dream Chaser for European missions.

A major area to be explored is ESA’s International Berthing Docking Mechanism, an advanced docking system designed for use on the International Space Station that would actively capture and seal the vehicle to the orbiting station. The primary build of the system is in Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. A number of other current and developing technologies and processes will also be evaluated including, the use of ESA’s human factors expertise, simulators and cockpit displays and several other key European offerings which are of interest to SNC.

This arrangement allows ESA to prove its hardware and technology in space on a crewed spacecraft. In exchange, SNC will have its development costs and production time potentially lessened as well as benefit from the extensive experience of ESA and its industrial partners.

According to Sierra Nevada press release:

“Today marks a special day for SNC,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems. “With the start of these new relationships with ESA and [the German Aerospace Center (DLR)] we are able to continue to expand the Dream Chaser Space System globally. The combined strengths of our partner space agencies, industrial companies and education institutions will significantly advance space education, exploration and, for various missions such as microgravity science, spacecraft servicing, debris removal, and materials manufacturing, provide economic benefits to all partners and strengthen U.S. and international ties.”

Space News reports that “Bremen, Germany-based OHB, a major space hardware contractor, said a Europeanized Dream Chaser, called DC4EU — Dream Chaser for European Utilization — could be used to ferry astronauts and gear to the space station.”

The arrangement is yet another important step forward this week for NewSpace.

On Monday January 6, SpaceX launched its second commercial payload in a month. The December 4 launch was the first time in four years a commercial satellite had launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, thanks to the legal monopoly granted Lockheed Martin and Boeing in 2005. That drove up their launch prices, sending the commercial satellite business overseas.

With the solar radiation concern abated, Orbital Sciences will try again tomorrow to launch the first of their eight contracted cargo deliveries aboard Cygnus to the ISS.

Earlier today, the White House announced that the Obama administration intends to extend ISS use to at least 2024.

It's been reported that Virgin Galactic may attempt another test flight of its suborbital spaceplane sometime before the end of the week out at the Mojave Airport.

Later this week on Thursday-Friday January 9-10, the International Academy of Astronautics will host the “Heads of Space Agencies Summit on Exploration” in Washington, DC.

The Sierra Nevada/ESA announcement shows there is definitely a market for NewSpace beyond the ISS, and beyond NASA. It creates a viable competitor for the crewed version of the SpaceX Dragon. Not only are both Dragon and Dream Chaser competing for the NASA Commercial Crew contract, but both have uncrewed versions that can be used as orbiting laboratories. The SpaceX version is called DragonLab.

SpaceX announced in May 2012 a joint marketing effort for crewed Dragon flights to the Bigelow expandable habitats scheduled for launch in 2017. Bigelow also has business relationships with Boeing, and it's expected that the Boeing CST-100 will offer flights to the Bigelow habitats as well as ISS.

All this vindicates the notion that NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs are growing a new aerospace economy here in the U.S., just as envisioned when first proposed by the Aldridge Commission in June 2004.

The end of this decade is going to be incredibly interesting in space.

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