Dream Chaser to breathe new life into Michoud

by Chris Bergin

Following this week’s announcement of a deal between Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Lockheed Martin, the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) will gain a much-needed boost. The facility, that once built the giant External Tanks (ETs), will soon host composite airframe fabrication for new Dream Chasers.

SNC/Lockheed Martin Deal:

SNC’s ongoing effort to prove they have the vehicle that can win NASA’s Commercial Crew competition continues to impress, as the Colorado company prepare the Engineering Test Article (ETA) for her business trip to California.

The ETA is just a few weeks away from heading to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, where the vehicle will be dropped from a helicopter for uncrewed landings at the facility that saw Enterprise conduct pathfinder landings ahead of the opening Space Shuttle missions.

Dream Chaser riding on Atlas V's CentaurLed by the driven Mark Sirangelo – a man with a fascinating back story – SNC’s Dream Chaser has a growing fan club within the space flight community, a following that has become attracted not just to the appearance of the “baby orbiter” vehicle, but also the capabilities that come with a lifting body versus the alternatives of capsules – cited by SNC as “dissimilar redundancy”.

Dream Chaser is fighting for what is likely to be just a single provider contract from NASA, a milestone that will result in commercial vehicles flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

That fight – albeit one that has seen all competitors being respectful of each other – is mainly between the three Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative award winners, who are all now at a key stage of development.

With Lockheed Martin announced as an exclusive partner to SNC on NASA’s Certification Products Contract (CPC), Dream Chaser now has a famous godparent to guide it through its early life.

SNC Presser - Photo by Lee Jay Fingersh/NASASpaceflight.com/L2“The SNC team is thrilled that Lockheed Martin will be joining our expanding world-class team of partner organizations also working to certify the Dream Chaser Space System for crewed flights to the International Space Station for NASA,” added Mr Sirangelo.

“The CPC contract offers the Dream Chaser team the opportunity for a more robust technical interchange with NASA as we work to develop a safe, reliable orbital crew transportation system.

“This contract capitalizes on SNC’s success working with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, as well as Lockheed Martin’s expertise in developing and certifying Orion’s beyond low Earth orbit human spaceflight hardware as part of NASA’s Exploration Program. Our team will work towards the common goal of certifying the Dream Chaser to provide the next generation human transportation system.”

With Lockheed Martin on board, SNC now have additional resources and facilities to nurse their baby orbiters towards the ultimate goal of flying in space. In fact, the very bones of new Dream Chasers will be put together in a facility that was an integral part of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP).

“We are pleased to include Lockheed Martin as part of the Dream Chaser Team to develop early certification products and to build critical flight hardware. Their recent human spacecraft certification experience and composite expertise make them a great addition to our program,” noted Jim Voss, vice president of Space Exploration Systems and Dream Chaser program manager.

MAF workers with four ETs - L2 PhotoMAF was once a vibrant New Orleans engineering hub, ranging back to the Saturn program and throughout the career of the Space Shuttle. Giant structures such as the External Tanks used to take shape inside its open floor buildings and High Bays, prior to taking a barge journey to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The botched transition to the Constellation Program (CxP) removed the promise to be a smooth handover to the Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) program. With its cancellation, the vast majority of the MAF workforce were laid off as the final External Tank headed out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The cull of MAF’s skilled workers – in a region that was still fighting back from Hurricane Katrina – still hurts when speaking to former employees, with a general feeling NASA’s leadership put their political alliances before the man on the factory floor – highlighted by NASA administrator Charlie Bolden’s failure to officially announce the Space Launch System (SLS) when lawmakers had requested it.

SLS Core via TerraBuilder, Inc and L2MAF leaders had hoped for an announcement within a timescale that may have allowed them to save a large number of workers, as was seen in their actions to extend the period prior to handing out WARN notices, several times, before finally losing patience with the stalling tactics in Washington DC.

With the car lot all-but empty, only a trickle of work continued inside MAF, as the majority of the facility was handed over to Jacobs Technologies.

While the BP oil company took control of BLDG 451 – otherwise known as the LH2 proof test building – to store the blow out preventer that caused the Gulf oil spill in 2010, some of the remaining workforce found themselves with job sheets that had nothing to do with the space program, as they spent some of their days removing equipment to make space for a string of production companies to use the facility to film scenes for blockbuster movies.

EFT-1 Orion at MAF via L2However, MAF is now fighting back, with Orion work resulting in the construction of the Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) vehicle, since shipped to KSC for outfitting.

Preparations are also now under way for modify buildings – such as MAF’s High Bays – ahead of construction work on the SLS that will initially focus on the huge core stage that has large amounts of heritage with the Shuttle ET.

And now MAF can look forward to hosting composite aiframe fabrication for Dream Chasers, thanks to the deal between SNC and Lockheed Martin.

Dream Chaser ETA Cockpit via L2This effort leverages the extensive Lockheed Martin experience in building composite structures for spacecraft and high performance aircraft and will see parts of the commercial crew spacecraft take shape under the same roof as NASA’s Orion, a spacecraft that is under the contract of Lockheed Martin.

“We are pleased to join the SNC Dream Chaser team. Lockheed Martin brings with it tremendous human-rated space flight knowledge from our significant experience with large, human-flight structures, including 135 flights with the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tanks,” said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.

“We feel we can share many synergies between the Orion exploration spacecraft and the Dream Chaser lifting body space vehicle. This provides a great opportunity to take NASA’s investments in crew exploration capabilities and leverage them toward commercial transportation to low Earth orbit.”

(Images via SNC, L2 and Lee Jay Fingersh/NASASpaceflight.com)

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