Sierra Nevada Completes Work on Commercial Crew Contract from 2011

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WASHINGTON — Sierra Nevada Space Systems wrapped up work begun in 2011 under the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, capping a $101.9 million Space Act Agreement that culminated in October with a free-flight test of a mockup of the company’s Dream Chaser spaceplane.

That test went smoothly until the end. The full-scale engineering test article was dropped by a helicopter from an altitude of about 4 kilometers at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The shuttle-like craft made a smooth, automated approach to the runway, touched down dead-center, but crashed after its left landing gear failed to deploy.

Sierra Nevada maintained that the crash had not stopped the company from gathering the data the test flight was designed to generate. NASA evidently agreed, according to the company’s Dec. 16 press release.

“After extensive post-flight analysis by NASA, [Sierra Nevada] received the full award value for the milestone,” the press release reads. The milestone, the last under the company’s Commercial Crew Development second-round contract, was worth about $8 million.

Work on the third round of the Commercial Crew Program has been going on for more than a year, and competition for funding in the fourth and final round has been underway for just under a month.

For the third phase, which began in August 2012, Sierra Nevada ended up with a $227.5 million Space Act Agreement — the smallest of three that were awarded. Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., also garnered third-round contracts.

The three companies are now competing for funding under the fourth and final round of the Commercial Crew Program, with an award expected by September. The fourth round is expected to include a demonstration crew launch to the international space station as soon as 2015. NASA wants the fourth round to result in at least one operational system making routine crew flights to and from low Earth orbit by 2017.

Currently, U.S. astronauts fly to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Back in April, NASA booked more Soyuz flights: six round trips and emergency rescue services through July 2017 at a cost of $424 million, or roughly $70 million per round trip.

Meanwhile, SNC plans to repair the Dream Chaser test vehicle damaged in the Oct. 26 drop test.

“After the post flight evaluation, the vehicle was deemed to be fully repairable and a schedule to return it to flight has been created,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Corp. and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, wrote in a Dec. 17 email. “SNC expects to fly this test vehicle back at Edwards Air Force Base upgraded with additional capability in 2014.”

The exact date for the test article’s next flight test has not been settled upon, Sirangelo added.