The Russians were obviously up to something. A Soviet ship out in the middle of the Indian Ocean was struggling to pull some kind of vessel out of the water, though it was unclear exactly what. So while an Australian spy plane patrolling that day in 1982 made a few passes, intelligence officers snapped photos.
The Australians passed the images to their intelligence counterparts at the CIA, which in turn looped in NASA officials. And together they helped solve the mystery: It was the BOR-4, “an unmanned prototype spacecraft used to test heat-shield ideas for what the Soviets envisioned would be their space shuttle program,” according to a NASA account of the incident.
In other words, a space plane.
Those Cold War spy images could have been an aeronautical footnote lost to history. But NASA last month announced that one of the vehicles chosen to fly cargo to the International Space Station would be the Dream Chaser, a snub-nosed craft derived from that lost Soviet one.
The award was an improbable triumph for Sierra Nevada Corp., and it marked the latest chapter in the winding tale of the captivating little spacecraft. The Dream Chaser’s revival comes as NASA has helped touch off a renaissance in the commercial space industry by awarding millions in contracts over the past decade to companies to develop new space vehicles that could take cargo — and, by 2017, astronauts — to the space station.
NASA first engineered a model of its own after studying the images of the Soviet spacecraft. The Americans were stunned by how well it performed.
“Eyes were opened,” according to a NASA historical account posted online.
For years, the Air Force had been working to developing similar technology, and NASA had also worked on developing it. But now armed with the images of the Soviet vehicle, NASA decided to pursue a new program, dubbing it the HL-20, which was going to be used as an escape vehicle for the astronauts aboard the space station. But the agency eventually canceled the program, citing a lack of money among other reasons.
Mark Sirangelo, then the head of a small space company that later merged with Sierra Nevada Corp., was looking to enter the competition for spaceflight contracts, and decided it would be more efficient to acquire a design that had already been developed instead of starting from scratch. He had heard of the HL-20 program, but by the time he went to see a wooden model of it in 2005, it was stashed away in the corner of a NASA hangar, hidden under a tarp that was covered in bird droppings. After sitting in limbo for at least a decade, NASA officials were getting ready to trash it, he said in a recent interview.
“Everything was boxed up,” said Sirangelo, now the head of Sierra Nevada Corp’s space division.
Still, he was intrigued. It had a robust pedigree of flight testing and analysis, even if the data appeared to be crunched using a hand-held calculator. So Sierra Nevada Corp. went to work reviving the space plane and entered the renamed Dream Chaser in NASA’s competition for a spacecraft that would fly astronauts to the space station after the shuttle retired in 2011. The company fared well, making the final round and collecting $363 million in development money from NASA in the process.
Government funding has been critical in developing a host of new spacecraft, lifting a once-stagnant commercial space industry in full innovation mode. Upstarts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin (founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post) are building rockets that can be reusable, capable of blasting off and landing, instead of being discarded at the end of a mission at huge expense.
The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is developing a rocket that would reuse the most essential part: the engines. Instead of the whole first stage of the rocket flying back to Earth, the engines would drop out and deploy parachutes. Later, a helicopter with a grappling hook would scoop them up.
Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is set to unveil its new SpaceShipTwo this month. Instead of launching from land, it would be tethered to the belly of a massive mothership, which would fly to 50,000 feet then drop the spacecraft, which would fire its engines and “air launch” into space. It would land on a runway, like an airplane.
Dream Chaser would combine some of those approaches. It would be perched atop a rocket, similar to a traditional capsule, as in the Apollo era. But on its return, it would fly back to Earth, land on a runway, and could also be reused.
Sierra Nevada Corp. thought there was a certain poetry to having a miniature shuttle become a serious contender in the race to replace the space shuttle. But it almost didn’t happen.
After making it to the final round of a competition to fly astronauts to the space station, the company lost out to two competitors. It “was like a death in the family,” Sirangelo would say at the time. About 100 people would lose their jobs, and the team’s prospects teetered.
So Sierra Nevada Corp. pivoted. NASA had launched a new competition for a craft to take cargo, not astronauts, to the space station. The deadline to enter was January 2015, a few months away.
Some people had doubts — “why would we bother,” Sirangelo said. “If you didn’t win the first time, what makes you think you could win the second time?”
Besides, the companies that had held the previous cargo contracts — SpaceX and Dulles-based Orbital ATK — were up and flying. And this time around, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two largest defense contractors in the world, were also bidding. Sirangelo knew his group would have to climb “a bigger mountain from an even deeper hole,” he said.
The Sierra Nevada team would work through the holidays, submit their bid and begin the long wait until June, when NASA was expected to make the award.
June would be a good time to get the news, especially if it was bad. Families with kids could finish the school year, then have the summer to figure out what to do next. But NASA pushed the date to July, then to September, then to November. And once more to January.
“The delays took a toll on everybody,” said Steve Lindsey, the program manager.
Finally, NASA called. Sirangelo and his leadership team walked stone-faced into the conference room of their Colorado offices, where his staff waited anxiously.
“I’m sorry,” Sirangelo began, letting the dramatic pause sink in. The room was silent. “But it looks like we’re going to be working together for the next decade.”
The room erupted in raucous applause. Sirangelo marveled at how, with a big government contract win, “life can change for thousands of people with just one sentence.”
Sierra Nevada Corp. joined SpaceX and Orbital ATK in being selected for a minimum of six missions each on a contract that could be worth as much as $14 billion. The first flights to fly food, supplies and science experiments to the space station are slated to begin in late 2019. And now that Dream Chaser has won such a potentially lucrative contract, executives said that they plan on bidding on the next round of NASA contracts to fly astronauts to the station — the competition they had previously lost.
Others are rooting for Dream Chaser, too. In 2005, Sirangelo took a trip to Russia and visited with some of the engineers who worked on the BOR-4. He told them that their idea lived on.
They were stunned, and had no idea that their invention had been resurrected, as reported by the website Ars Technica.
Sirangelo promised that when Dream Chaser flew, it would carry a list of the names of the Russian engineers along with people at NASA who worked on the HL-20 program.
A couple years later, Sirangelo got a letter from the daughter of one of those engineers, saying that her father had recently died, but it was very important to him that his name be on that flight.
When the vehicle flies, he said she told him, it would be as of “a small piece of him would be in space.”