Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems division may be the underdog in the NASA-backed initiative to develop a privately run crew taxi service to the international space station, but the Colorado-based firm is confident its Dream Chaser spaceship can meet the agency’s 2017 deadline. 

Unlike the Dragon and CST-100 capsules being developed by Commercial Crew contenders Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Boeing, Sierra Nevada favors a winged craft that would launch on an Atlas 5 rocket and land like an airplane on a runway — just about any runway if necessary. 

After 25 years of working on the space shuttle program, Dan Ciccateri joined Sierra Nevada in October to serve as the company’s chief systems engineer for the Dream Chaser program, a job that has him divided between development work in Colorado and planning an operations base in Florida. He recently spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz about what lies ahead for Dream Chaser.

What do you think the advantage of Dream Chaser is over the Dragon and the CST-100?

The immediate, highest advantage of a runway landing is just the load at landing. We are a very low-g land, like an airplane. The other crafts with airbags and in the sea and everything else will necessarily have a higher shock load to both cargo and crew. You can put in seats and systems to cushion the force but the more you put in, the more you’re adding mass, and the more you’re adding mass the less you’re taking up to orbit. Ours, because it’s a lift body, we can come in and just glide and touch. So the No. 1  advantage is that capability, and, of course, cross-range. 

When you come in and you’re ballistic and you commit, you’re going in. We can go around. We can go halfway around. We can come in somewhere else where the weather is clear. We can land on a commercial runway, so we have a lot of options. 

Can Dream Chaser land autonomously?

Our baseline is that we’re piloted. We intend to have a crew, but we will have auto-land capability.

Can it fly autonomously?

Yes. Our first orbital flight will be autonomous. 

So it will be kind of like the military’s X-37B?

Yes — with a bunch of seats. 

Where would you actually turn the ships around between flights? 

There are a number of facilities at the Cape that we’re looking at to support both the vehicle and our systems. We have tile. We need propellant servicing. We have not committed, so anything that’s not currently already occupied by another company we’re looking at. 

Boeing has announced they have a space shuttle Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) bay for the CST-100. The other two shuttle OPF bays were claimed by a third party that has not been announced by the government, but they were working that. We’re looking at all options.

We will have crew flight from the Cape, we have a test flight prior to that and a pathfinder before that, so all of our facilities have to be designated, all of our ground support equipment validated to meet those launch dates. That’s currently being negotiated with the NASA Commercial Crew office and our program. Then we’ll make an announcement about specific facilities. 

Do you feel like you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with Boeing and SpaceX for the next round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program because you didn’t get as much funding during the current phase?

In some aspects. Had we gotten a full check then we certainly could have done much more in the time frame. Technically, I guess NASA considered it a half of an award based on how they did the split. I think the agency has been very good in working with us and being flexible in establishing its milestones, but from a time line we certainly could have accelerated our development had we been given the added funding.

So yeah, half the money doesn’t get you there at the same speed. But there are other pieces that play in. We are picking up some technologies from other areas and we are doing some technology development, as are the other teams. 

Based on when SpaceX and Boeing have said they’d be ready to fly, Sierra Nevada is about a year behind. Is that right?

Yes, but I think we bring some value in variety and capability that’s unique, but it’s not unproven. So that’s the other side of it. What we’re offering has already been demonstrated. It’s just a matter of providing that in a smaller package and in a commercial environment. 

Is there any indication that if NASA didn’t fund Dream Chaser in its next round of Commercial Crew, Sierra Nevada would end development?

That isn’t our position currently. Our position is that the corporation is behind us. We believe we have a solid commercial base for this, based on customers that they have been talking to. Much like the initial half-award, if we don’t get the full funding, it certainly will take us longer to get to that point in time, but there’s no expectation to fold up shop and call it quits based on what NASA does or does not get for funding on its next round. 

How much funding do you need to get to the 2017 date? 

Right now, we’re on track to complete our contractual obligations with our current funding. Of course, whatever else can come our way can certainly accelerate our capabilities and/or schedule. So given our current funding profile, we’ve laid out our program to achieve those minimum thresholds to get to that point of certification.

That gets us up for the next phase, which is a new proposal and that comes with a completely different funding profile.

Do you see any potential commercial customers for Dream Chaser?

We actually have an entire team working that and they have a significant number of third-party companies that are interested in personnel transports and experiments. I don’t have any specifics on the mission objectives and the cargo and the timing. 

Right now the only destination we really have is station, but there are a number of potential folks out there who are laying out their piece that need the enabling components, which is launch and transport. 

Have you guys talked with Bigelow Aerospace?

I haven’t been engaged in that. I am ground and mission systems.

Can Dream Chaser launch on a Falcon rocket? 

We are very flexible. Right now our baseline launcher is Atlas, but our vehicle is also evolvable. When you look at the suite of available launch vehicles, there are only so many that can lift so much. When you get to a Falcon 9, or a NASA heavy-lift launch vehicle, well now you can put something else on top, you’ve got the flexibility to evolve. 

We believe our design is much more extensible than perhaps a capsule, because if you just have a big capsule and you’re landing ballistic you’ve got a big bottom side and it’s coming in hot, there are certain limitations with the thermal protection system, the heat dispersion. We’re small today, but we know you can land a lift-body that’s as big as the space shuttle. I think we’re less constrained from a growth perspective than some of our industry partners. 

How has the development of the Dream Chaser rocket motor been going?

We continue to make progress on our hybrid rocket motors. Virgin Galactic, which also uses one of our Sierra Nevada-produced motors, had an outstanding flight in April and we’ve had some successful ground tests on our variant that will be used on the Dream Chaser.

What’s the status of your test program at NASA Dryden in California?

They’re out there right now. We have a whole series of ground tests with an engineering test article that we have to complete. Toward the end of the summer we’ll be doing the vehicle drop. We’re all looking forward to that.