Some people are criticized for chasing dreams. But for Mark Sirangelo, as corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems division, that’s part of his job as he leads the effort to develop the Dream Chaser — a lifting-body spaceplane the Louisville, Colorado-based company is positioning as an economical successor to the retired NASA space shuttle.
NASA is soon to award one or more Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts meant to provide the agency by the end of 2017 with a U.S. alternative to Russian Soyuz vehicles for transporting astronauts to and from the international space station.
The competition is stiff. The winged Dream Chaser is up against the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Dragon V2 and the Boeing CST-100 — both capsules.
“We have well over 40 organizations and companies on our team in 31 states,” Sirangelo said, dubbing them the “space dream team.”
“We think we have a great proposal,” Sirangelo said, “but it has been a nine-year journey for me on this one program.”
In his other SNC work, Sirangelo has helped to build and grow a product portfolio ranging from small satellites and space technologies for planetary missions to hybrid rocket motor work for Virgin Galactic’s passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane.
Sirangelo, who has spent most of his professional life as an entrepreneur founding and leading several successful technology and communications companies, spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David.
When do you expect a NASA commercial crew decision?
They’ve said in the August-September time frame. As far as we can tell that is when it’s going to happen. As a team we’re very proud of Dream Chaser. Nine years ago there were those that doubted we were going to build a replacement to the space shuttle. We’re standing here today as a viable, well-recognized potential competitor in this area.
If the decision doesn’t go your way, would you mothball Dream Chaser?
We are in a competition. There are many factors, and it really depends, I think, on how one loses. Is it because of price or a technical issue? Is it because NASA only wanted to choose one, but if they had more money they would have chosen two? There are many things that go into that decision and there’s no simple answer to your question. It depends on what happens. We’ll make the business judgment as to what we ought to do.
Why build a winged vehicle, with all its challenges, instead of a ballistic capsule like Boeing andare doing?
When we look at building essentially shuttle 2.0 we are using control techniques, computers and other technologies that did not exist 40 years ago. So many of the challenges that were faced by a lifting body in the 1980s and 1990s we have been able to overcome. We think the vehicle is extraordinarily safe. It has been tested more than any other design that’s ever been out there.
The idea that you can get 20 or 30 flights from every Dream Chaser is highly compelling. In 60 years of capsules, there’s never been one that’s gone back up to space from any country that I’m aware of. Also, we don’t have to land in the water having the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard pick us up. Coming home to a runway in eight hours from the station at less than two g’s is another big, compelling feature.
We have recently been calling Dream Chaser a “space utility vehicle” — a very efficient plane that can have multiple uses in space. While there’s nothing against capsules, they don’t have near the utility that something like this does.
What market opportunities do you see for Dream Chaser beyond crew transport?
We think there are several missions Dream Chaser could perform. One is the transportation mission for the international space station of both crew and critical cargo. We can bring down mass within hours to a runway in Florida, or Texas or California. Second is a servicing mission — repairing things, refueling satellites or eliminating future debris by moving satellites out of the way. Another one is as a standalone research center because the interior volume of the Dream Chaser is similar to what a module offers on the station. The vehicle can be on orbit for an extended duration, multiple weeks with a couple of crew members, or over a year without crew.
So you foresee producing a line of Dream Chasers for these different applications?
We have entered into a strategic relationship with Lockheed Martin. They are building the composite structure for us. The idea is that we will have the ability to build multiple structures. I wouldn’t say an assembly line, but a progression of bodies as we need them. Much like the automobile industry, you build a standard chassis and you can change bodies out. We can build a relatively standard Dream Chaser and then modify it to be a cargo vehicle, a crew vehicle or a servicing vehicle by using a standard base.
Can you outline the schedule that will achieve NASA’s 2017 date for delivery of crew to the space station?
We have first launch on the Atlas 5 in 2016, and it would be an uncrewed flight. The second flight would be with crew and that would happen six to eight months later. So we will be in service by the end of 2016.
How about additional drop tests like the October 2013 flight at Edwards Air Force Base, although you encountered trouble with the left landing gear deployment?
We are going to do more tests, although we don’t know how many. Our first flight was so good that we actually got enough data for two or three flights. The landing gear problem was something that we didn’t want to happen. But interestingly enough it has turned out to be a positive thing in some ways. We got to test the strength of the vehicle. The landing gear didn’t fully deploy, but it had to with bad hydraulic fluid. It’s not the landing gear we’re using on the orbital vehicle.
We’ve decided to fly the next flight with our orbital software. So a couple more flights uncrewed using the orbital software. Then we will bring the vehicle back in and finish outfitting it for a couple of flights piloted. In total, perhaps five drop tests. That’s probably something that we’re targeting.
Is Congress providing sufficient funding for NASA’s commercial crew program to meet the 2017 goal?
From the perspective of someone who has been with the commercial crew program when there was not money — and now we’re arguing between $785 million and $805 million, which is a healthy budget for a program. It’s not quite where it needs to be. But when you look at how it’s stepped up, sometimes you need to give credit where it’s due. They have understood this in both the House and the Senate. And they are probably as close on this issue with President Obama as any issue they have up there right now. So I don’t look at it negatively. I think there’s a learning process that needs to go on.
Also, I don’t think it’s a question of if there is going to be a commercial crew program. It’s a question of when. And somebody will win and we think it’s going to be us.
Do you see the Boeing-built X-37 spaceplane operated by the U.S. Air Force as a competitor?
I think it’s a successful program. I don’t know if it’s a competitor. It doesn’t seem to be, but I don’t have any knowledge of Boeing’s plan. But there’s more than one kind of airplane. But we don’t view it as a competitor right now; part of it is because of cost. It’s still a government program, funded by the government. Ours is privately owned and that gives us a lot more flexibility.
How are Sierra Nevada’s other space business lines doing?
In general, we are something on the order of 10 times as big as we were five years ago. So we’ve had a fair amount of success.
We’re building a constellation of small, second-generation communications satellites for Orbcomm. We will put 17 of them up this year, including the six that SpaceX launched July 14. Depending on which part of them you look at they are anywhere from eight to 12 times more capable than the ones they are replacing — and at lesser cost.
Our subsystems and components, what we call space technology, is something that people don’t see. It’s one of those quiet things. We have built over 4,000 items with an on-orbit success that’s 100 percent. That includes working for what people might have thought as a competitor — by supplying the passive berthing mechanism for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus space cargo tug. We were also heavily engaged in the Curiosity Mars rover landing, as we were in the Opportunity and Spirit rovers. We’ve been to seven planets, the Moon and the sun with something that we’ve built.
Any future business lines that you’re exploring?
No, I don’t see a major expansion, but we see expansion within each of our business lines, like our recent decision to acquire Orbital Technologies Corp. to add additional propulsion capability.
Last year, Colorado’s governor appointed you the state’s chief innovation officer. How’s that task going?
Colorado has been a great home state for space in general, not just for us. The governor just appointed an aerospace advocate for him to make sure that issues get brought up. Me being the chief innovation officer is a volunteer job and it was an honor to be asked. What the state has asked me to do, in a nonpartisan way, is to help bring attention to the fact that Colorado is quite innovative, not just in space but in bioscience, in agriculture, in renewable energy and in other areas.
We have a lot of larger heritage companies here. There are also a lot of startup and innovative new companies. What the state is focused on is to try to make sure that those growing companies stay here and have the ability, as midsized companies, to establish themselves and grow.
Your advice to space entrepreneurs?
We think of ourselves as pretty smart, savvy technical people. But we also know what we don’t know. And that’s a hard thing to do, to admit that there are many people in the world that are smarter than you in certain areas. And we reach out to those people and bring them in. That is why we have a wide group of partnerships.
I think our style is we sort of under-promise and over-deliver as a company, not someone who goes out there and promises a price that’s four times as low and can’t get there. So I think the advice is to be confident, but be honest and try not to over-promise.