Virgin Galactic Announces CCDev Partnerships with Orbital and Sierra Nevada

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WASHINGTON – Virgin Galactic said Dec. 16 it is supporting competing bids from Orbital Sciences Corp. and Sierra Nevada Corp. for a portion of the $200 million NASA intends to award in March under the second round of its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev 2) program.

Both Orbital and Sierra are developing winged spacecraft designed to launch atop expendable rockets to deliver astronauts to the international space station.

Virgin Galactic is currently flight testing SpaceShipTwo, a passenger-carrying suborbital spacecraft expected to launch into space for the first time in 2011.

“As a contributor to [Sierra Nevada’s] and [Orbital Sciences’] submissions to NASA, [Virgin Galactic] is proposing to market seats on these vehicles to the public and to its existing customer base, which now numbers more than 400 people who have made deposits of over $54 million,” Virgin Galactic said in a Dec. 16 news release. Virgin Galactic also said it could potentially offer its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft for use during the companies’ test flight programs.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. said Dec. 14 that it is seeking NASA CCDev 2 funding for a “blended lifting body” vehicle that would launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket to deliver four astronauts to the international space station. Although Orbital did not identify Virgin Galactic as a teammate, it disclosed a list of “major suppliers” that included Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, which is identified in the press release as “the lead airframe structures designer.”

Northrop Grumman owns Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, which is building WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo for Virgin to operate. Orbital’s other CCDev 2 suppliers include Thales Alenia Space, Honeywell, Draper Laboratory and United Launch Alliance.

Sierra Nevada put out a separate announcement Dec. 16 outlining its relationship with Virgin Galactic.

“[Virgin Galactic] will investigate ways to use its considerable expertise, reputation and experience to provide global sales and marketing services for the Dream Chaser,” Sierra Nevada said in its release. “This effort could include the selling of seats on the vehicle as well as exploring the contracted use of [Virgin Galactic’s] WhiteKnightTwo vehicle as a carrier aircraft for the Dream Chaser during its atmospheric flight test program.”

Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. was the big winner in NASA’s first round of CCDev awards earlier this year, winning $20 million in CCDev 1 funds to mature its Dream Chaser orbital spacecraft, a six-passenger lifting-body vehicle based on NASA’s HL-20 concept from the early 1990s that the company has been working on for several years.

NASA started the CCDev program in 2009 with $50 million in economic recovery funds. The agency awarded the first round of contracts in February to a mix of five new and established aerospace firms that are using the money to work on technology supportive of U.S. President Barack Obama’s commercial space transportation vision.