Dream Chaser space vehicle under design at Michoud

Officials from two aerospace companies gathered at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility on Tuesday to show how the plant is helping to reinvigorate interest in U.S. space exploration with a manned vehicle that could not only ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station but could also carry private passengers on trips into space.

The vehicle’s commercial designer, Sierra Nevada Corp., contracted with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. to build the new “space plane,” dubbed Dream Chaser.

When complete, it will look like a little brother to the familiar shuttle that for decades carried astronauts on space missions. But unlike the shuttle, the seven-passenger Dream Chaser will have a small cargo capacity and will be able to land on any runway that can accommodate a Boeing 737 airplane.

“It’s a space utility vehicle, practical and useful for all aspects of low Earth orbit,” including carrying paying passengers on space trips, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems.

Sierra Nevada is competing with two other companies — Space Technologies Corp. and Boeing — to develop a new generation of commercial space vehicles for NASA.

While its rivals are designing wingless capsules that would land by splashing down in an ocean, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is a winged lifting-body craft that would launch vertically atop an Atlas 5 rocket and re-enter the atmosphere horizontally, gliding toward a runway landing.

The vehicle’s designers believe Dream Chaser’s potential goes beyond providing taxi service between Earth and the space station, and could include repairing satellites and serving as a laboratory in space.

Former test pilot and astronaut Steve Lindsey, senior director and program manager for the Dream Chaser, said the lift-body vehicle’s versatility is its strength.

Noting that any runway of 8,000 feet or more will be able to accommodate a Dream Chaser landing, he said, “We can land in other countries and go anywhere we want” in low Earth orbit.

“It’s how we should be going in and out of space,” Lindsey said.

Dream Chaser’s carbon-fiber composite structure will take shape at the eastern New Orleans plant using technology supplied by the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which resides at Michoud and operates in partnership with NASA, the state, the University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University.

On completion of the vehicle’s components — including keel, bulkhead, ring frames, wings and rudder — Lockheed Martin will ship them to a plant in Fort Worth for final assembly.

Much of the high-tech equipment that will be used to fabricate the components was paid for by the state of Louisiana, a Sierra Nevada spokesman said. Because of the highly mechanized process for constructing the components, only 15 workers are employed on the project.

Sirangelo said that in its original design, Dream Chaser was intended to serve as a NASA rescue vehicle, available in the event that the space station had to be evacuated. But in 2004, Sierra Nevada took over the vehicle’s license from NASA and began to rework the design.

“Now Dream Chaser is the program that will replace the shuttle we lost,” he said, referring to the 2011 shutdown of the U.S. space shuttle program.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Jim Crocker, who oversees the company’s civil space business, said its involvement in the Dream Chaser program is a continuation of Lockheed Martin’s long history at Michoud.

After decades of building the space shuttle’s external fuel tanks at the site, the company in 2011 began working on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program, a big project that continues at Michoud.

Crocker said bringing the commercial Dream Chaser program to the site helps balance out peaks and valleys in the Orion work.

Predicting that the new vehicle “will be the first of a series” of Dream Chasers that Lockheed will build at the site, he added: “The lights are back on at Michoud Assembly Facility.”

During the final years of the U.S. space shuttle program, when more than 3,000 people worked at Michoud, some observers feared that the site might indeed go dark. But worries eased somewhat when NASA announced that Boeing would build an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle to carry the Orion into deep space.

Today, Boeing is building the Space Launch System at Michoud, under the same roof where Lockheed Martin is fabricating the Orion structure.

Lockheed Martin’s partnership with Sierra Nevada on the Dream Chaser project is a mark of NASA’s turn toward private industry involvement in space projects and its effort to rebuild employment at the Michoud site by bringing in more commercial tenants.

Roy Malone, NASA’s director of the Michoud Assembly Facility, said that along with Boeing and Lockheed Martin as the primary tenants, the facility is benefiting from commercial companies that have settled in at Michoud.

Wind turbine manufacturer Blade Dynamics now operates at the site, as does movie production house Big Easy Studios. The U.S. Coast Guard also operates an exchange facility there.

“We’ve kind of transformed the workforce from (external fuel tank) manufacturing to a multitenant workforce with a lot of different activities,” Malone said.

In the process, total employment at Michoud has again risen above the 3,000 mark, he said.

Malone added that the diversification of activity at Michoud bodes well for the site’s long-term future. Comparing the current mix of work to the days when Michoud was a single-purpose complex dedicated to building space shuttle fuel tanks, he said: “I think today’s model is a little more sustainable.”