WASHINGTON — As Sierra Space continues to prepare for the first flight of its Dream Chaser vehicle, it is outlining long-term ambitions for both that vehicle and space station modules.
Speaking at the Jeffries Space Summit online investor conference June 27, Tom Vice, chief executive of Sierra Space, said the company was continuing to work towards a first launch of its cargo Dream Chaser vehicle as soon as December.
That vehicle, he said, is going through final integration and testing work at the company’s Colorado factory. It remains scheduled to ship later this summer to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, the former Plum Brook Station, for thermal vacuum testing. From there it will go to the Kennedy Space Center for final launch preparations.
He said he expected Dream Chaser to be fully integrated with its launch vehicle, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, in “the December timeframe” and launch in a window that extends into early February.
That timing, though, is dependent on the readiness of the Vulcan rocket. ULA announced June 24 it needed to make a “minor reinforcement” to part of the Centaur upper stage, delaying its first launch for an unspecified period. The first Dream Chaser will launch on the second Vulcan, after the inaugural launch that carries payloads for Astrobotic, Amazon and Celestis.
“We’re watching the Vulcan very carefully,” Vice acknowledged. “They’ve got to get up their first flight of Vulcan, turn the mission data analysis around and then we’re on the second flight.”
That launch is the first of at least seven Sierra Space will perform for NASA to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station. He said the company is in talks with potential non-NASA U.S. government customers as well as unspecified customers interested in free-flying science missions.
The company is also working on a second version that can carry both crew and cargo. Vice said that version will have 40% greater cargo capacity than the first version and can support a six-person crew.
The ability of Dream Chaser to glide back to Earth in a runway landing, rather than splash down in the ocean, is a key selling point to customers, he argued. “We just think that landing at runways around the world is a huge differentiator: low-g landing back on a runway for both time-critical cargo and science, but also just the way people are going to want to fly back and land.”
Vice hinted that the company has longer-term plans for Dream Chaser that could possibly allow it to end dependence on other companies’ launch vehicles. “We’re thinking about investigating the right technologies in thermal and propulsion and materials that allows us to potentially think about the staging options that would allow us, for the first time, have horizontal takeoff,” he said. He didn’t offer a schedule for developing that version of Dream Chaser.
LIFE and financials
Vice, in the half-hour presentation, also emphasized the company’s work on an expandable space station module called Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE), with 330 cubic meters of volume in its initial version. The company has been developing LIFE to serve as part of its contribution to the Orbital Reef commercial space station project it is working with Blue Origin and others on.
Before offering LIFE for Orbital Reef, though, the company is proposing to launch a standalone “pathfinder” version of LIFE as soon as the end of 2026. That module, he said, would be used for commercial applications, like pharmaceutical and other biotech research.
“There have been a number of breakthroughs in the biotech world utilizing the ISS that show we can do some very unique things,” he said, which he believes form the basis of a commercial model for the LIFE module.
Launching a pathfinder version of LIFE, he said, could reduce concerns about a post-ISS gap while demonstrating the value of the company’s technology. In addition, “it is a revenue-generating space station that is focused around next-generation breakthroughs.”
That pathfinder, he said, would be used exclusively for commercial applications rather than serving NASA and other governments, which would be reserved for Orbital Reef. The pathfinder would be a “significant risk reduction” for Orbital Reef in both technology and business cases.
In the presentation, Vice shared some financial details about privately held Sierra Space. According to a slide from his talk, the company recorded about $260 million in revenue in 2022, with more than $3 billion in active contracts. The company raised $1.4 billion in a Series A round in November 2021 and has about $3 billion in total company and customer investment to date.
Sierra Space is a “revenue-generating, profit-generating company,” Vice said, but did not disclose how much profit it generated in 2022. The company has “a very strong balance sheet and long-term investors that give us the capital that allows us to invest in being a category winner.”