As the US battles to regain its domestic crew launch capability, companies across the nation are making great progress on the vehicles that are in competition to achieve that goal. Monday saw the confirmation Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has passed Milestone 8 in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) process, a success that relates to Wind Tunnel testing on their Dream Chaser spacecraft.
Pushing on via CCiCAP:
As everyone is now more than aware, the United States gave up its ability to launch its own astronauts when political direction insisted the Space Shuttle fleet should be shipped off to museums.
Instead, hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars are now being wired to Roscosmos, money that “pays” for NASA astronauts to hitch a ride on spare seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft destined for the International Space Station (ISS).
However, the United States is deep into domestic crew launch revival, with the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) providing financial and technical support to three highly driven American companies who are competing for the right to launch NASA astronauts from American soil.
SpaceX, with its Dragon spacecraft, are understood to be the big favorites to be the first commercial company to loft NASA astronauts to the ISS on a mission called USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1).
The Dragon recently completed its fourth mission to the orbital outpost, successfully concluding the CRS-3/SpX-3 mission with a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday.
SpaceX is currently planning to reveal the crewed Dragon – sometimes referenced as the DragonRider, or Dragon 2 – to the public “within weeks”, ahead of its role with abort testing.
SpaceX recently conducted an integrated Critical Design Review (CDR) of major hardware and software elements of the company’s Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. The CDR took into account a host of previous reviews of the design of the vehicles along with the testing involved in verifying the systems.
Boeing are also in the mix, with their usually media-shy CST-100 spacecraft showing off the interior that astronauts would look forward to ingressing ahead of rides to the Station.
The photos published by Boeing are impressive, with a sci-fi/first class airliner interior that is a far cry from the even the much-loved Space Shuttle orbiters that CST-100 manager Chris Ferguson had the honor of riding inside.
Boeing has also been busy working the paperwork, with another milestone on the evaluation of the spacecraft’s software recently conducted via a CDR.
This review confirmed the computer coding can be used during CST-100’s upcoming flight tests.
SNC has what is arguably the darling of the Commercial Crew Program – at least in the eyes of the space flight fans – with their Dream Chaser spacecraft’s appearance and heritage deeply associated with the since-retired Shuttle orbiters.
From a Program standpoint, her lack of commonality with the two capsule spacecraft she is in competition with provides NASA managers with an interesting set of attractive alternatives to consider, including cross-range, multiple landing options.
Dream Chaser’s advance towards space flight has been keenly monitored, as much as SNC now appear to be closely following the commercial space playbook of providing the media with a heavily controlled drip feed of updates, mainly out of the fear of falling foul to a general media that is more interested in problems than progress.
However, Monday did result in the first update for some time, with the positive update from the vehicle’s Wind Tunnel testing.
Known as Milestone 8 in their CCiCAP checklist, the Wind Tunnel testing involves analyzing the forces and flight dynamic characteristics that the vehicle will experience during orbital ascent and re-entry, as the Dream Chaser Atlas V integrated launch system.
Several Dream Chaser scale model spacecraft were subjected to multiple different wind tunnel tests in various configurations, including the integrated Dream Chaser attached to the Atlas V launch vehicle.
The wind tunnel tests for this milestone were completed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, CALSPAN Transonic Wind Tunnel in New York, and at NASA’s Langley Research Center Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in Hampton, Virginia.
SNC has a long standing relationship with Langley dating to 2004, the beginning of its development for the Dream Chaser, a derivative of NASA’s HL-20 lifting body vehicle. Langley also houses the full motion-based flight simulator, which operates using Dream Chaser flight software and has been used to train future Dream Chaser pilots and NASA astronauts.
In addition to these locations, previous wind tunnel testing also occurred at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and at Texas A&M University.
In addition to the baseline milestone criteria, SNC fully self-funded an additional wind tunnel test that will accelerate the Dream Chaser development schedule and path to completion of the Critical Design Review, according to the company.
“The aerodynamic data collected during these tests has further proven and validated Dream Chaser’s integrated spacecraft and launch vehicle system design. It also has shown that Dream Chaser expected performance is greater than initially predicted,” noted Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.
Interestingly, the greater-than-expected performance mirrors the test results from the Engineering Test Article (ETA) Dream Chaser that enjoyed her first free flight over the Dryden Flight Research Center last year.
While that flight is still best known for the unseen landing gear failure, it was still a hugely successful test, proving the vehicle could fly, and fly well – something that could only be confirmed via a full scale flight.
While the ETA is undergoing repairs following her Californian tumble – ahead of her return to Dryden for a second flight later this year – her sister ship that will fly in space continues to be built at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
The plan, according to SNC, is to fly an internally selected crew of astronauts on that vehicle at the end of 2016 – which has since been noted in the FPIP ISS manifests in L2 – with a potential USCV-1 flight – should SNC win the Commercial Crew contract – at the end of 2017.
“We are on schedule to launch our first orbital flight in November of 2016, which will mark the beginning of the restoration of U.S. crew capability to low-Earth orbit,” added Sirangelo.
Notably, SpaceX are expected to be in the position of crew launch capability much sooner than their competitors, which may play into their hands as L2 sources note NASA is already conducting meetings to look at the potential to accelerate the 2017 USCV-1 date in light of the recent situation with the Russian political leadership.
For the interim, NASA managers simply want to see the continued progress towards allowing such a potential acceleration to become a possibility.
“What we have seen from our industry partners is a determination to make their components and systems work reliably, and in turn they’ve been able to demonstrate the complex machinery that makes spaceflight possible will also work as planned,” added Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program manager.
“These next few months will continue to raise the bar for achievement by our partners.”
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