CAPE CANAVERAL — Multibillion-dollar contracts NASA is expected to award as soon as Thursday will establish the fleet of U.S. vehicles servicing the International Space Station into the next decade, and could introduce a new spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center.
The space agency was scheduled to announce the winners of contracts to deliver cargo to the space station on unmanned craft between 2018 and 2024, decisions that have been delayed multiple times this year.
The incumbent cargo haulers, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, hope to continue their services, while Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. hope to claim a piece of the action that could be worth up to $14 billion.
For Sierra Nevada, which last year lost out to Boeing and SpaceX on contracts to fly astronauts, the cargo deals offer a second and perhaps last chance to bring the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to life.
“We have worked through a lot of design changes, all of which made us a better vehicle,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Space Systems, in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, I feel we are a good choice for the country.”
SpaceX already launches cargo from Cape Canaveral in Dragon capsules, while Orbital ATK plans to resume launches from Virginia once its redesigned Antares rocket returns to flight next year.
Video: Grand Opening of Boeing Commercial Crew & Cargo Processing Facility and naming of the CST-100 Starliner. Video by Malcolm Denemark
But contract wins by either Boeing or Sierra Nevada would mean more work at Kennedy Space Center.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is one of the two capsules NASA has selected to fly astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, and will be assembled at KSC. That work already is expected to total 550 jobs.
An expansion of the CST-100’s role to include uncrewed cargo runs would increase activity at Boeing’s KSC facilities, which include a former space shuttle hangar and engine shop.
“We think we add a lot of value to NASA with our cargo proposal,” John Mulholland, head of Boeing’s commercial space programs, told reporters in September. “We’ll see a strong impact with the successful cargo (bid).”
A win by the Dream Chaser would further bolster KSC’s goal of becoming a multi-user spaceport shared by NASA and commercial space companies.
The space plane, adapted from a NASA design and resembling a miniature version of the larger shuttles that called KSC home for 30 years, is likely the last new orbital spacecraft that KSC can hope to attract for years.
Sierra Nevada would plan to prepare the Dream Chaser for flight in KSC’s Armstrong Operations and Checkout building. The mini-shuttle would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and KSC’s former shuttle runway would serve as its primary landing site.
“We are running our operations primarily from Florida,” said Sirangelo.
NASA Partner Manager for Sierra Nevada Corporation Cheryl McPhillips discusses the uniqueness of the company’s Dream Chaser spacecraft and the milestones it will complete during the agency’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative.
NASA may want to choose more than the two cargo providers it has now because international partners will be flying to the station less frequently. Europe’s ATV cargo craft has already been retired, and Japan’s HTV has only two more missions booked, but may add some.
Each winner of a cargo contract will be guaranteed six missions.
Adding either Boeing or Sierra Nevada would give NASA a third rocket — ULA’s reliable if more expensive Atlas V — for resupply missions, which have been limited over the past year by failures of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital ATK’s Antares.
On the spacecraft side, the Dream Chaser offers NASA’s only option to diversify its fleet beyond the capsules flown by SpaceX and Boeing, and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, which does not return to Earth. NASA reportedly has dropped consideration of another new cargo system that Lockheed Martin proposed.
Sierra Nevada says the cargo Dream Chaser features numerous upgrades over the crew version that failed to win a contract last year.
Those include the ability to fly unpiloted missions, folding wing fins that enable the space plane to fit inside a rocket’s fairing during launch, and a cargo module that attaches to the back of the Dream Chaser. The module is equipped with solar arrays providing power for extended stays in orbit, if necessary.
Winning a cargo contract could give Sierra Nevada the foothold it needs to continue upgrading the spacecraft to fly astronauts, or for other orbital missions the company envisions, such as servicing satellites. Another loss could make it difficult to keep the Dream Chaser program alive.
“What we’ve learned in my time in (the space industry) is that we really don’t know what the future holds for us,” said Sirangelo. “And if they cut off that type of vehicle and it’s needed — needed to rebuild the space station, needed to go do some mission that capsules can’t do — wouldn’t that be sort of a bad way to end the whole story?”
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