sierra nevada corp

Space Missions Come Together in Colorado

Our leadership hit the road to visit our commercial partners Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Ball Aerospace in Colorado. They were able to check the status of flight hardware, mission operations and even test virtual reality simulations that help these companies build spacecraft parts.

Let’s take a look at all the cool technology they got to see…

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor building our Orion crew vehicle, the only spacecraft designed to take humans into deep space farther than they’ve ever gone before.

Acting NASA Deputy Administrator Lesa Roe and Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot are seen inside the CHIL…the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo. Lockheed Martin’s CHIL enables collaboration between spacecraft design and manufacturing teams before physically producing hardware.

Cool shades! The ability to visualize engineering designs in virtual reality offers tremendous savings in time and money compared to using physical prototypes. Technicians can practice how to assemble and install components, the shop floor can validate tooling and work platform designs, and engineers can visualize performance characteristics like thermal, stress and aerodynamics, just like they are looking at the real thing.

This heat shield, which was used as a test article for the Mars Curiosity Rover, will now be used as the flight heat shield for the Mars 2020 rover mission.

Fun fact: Lockheed Martin has built every Mars heat shield and aeroshell for us since the Viking missions in 1976.

Here you can see Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area. Engineers in this room support six of our robotic planetary spacecraft: Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Juno, OSIRIS-REx and Spitzer, which recently revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star, TRAPPIST-1. They work with NASA centers and the mission science teams to develop and send commands and monitor the health of the spacecraft.

See all the pictures from the Lockheed Martin visit HERE

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Next, Lightfoot and Roe went to Sierra Nevada Corporation in Louisville, Colo. to get an update about its Dream Chaser vehicle. This spacecraft will take cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of our commercial cargo program.

Here, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Vice President of Space Exploration Systems Steve Lindsey (who is also a former test pilot and astronaut!) speaks with Lightfoot and Roe about the Dream Chaser Space System simulator.

Lightfoot climbed inside the Dream Chaser simulator where he “flew” the crew version of the spacecraft to a safe landing. This mock-up facility enables approach-and-landing simulations as well as other real-life situations. 

See all the images from the Sierra Nevada visit HERE.

Ball Aerospace

Lightfoot and Roe went over to Ball Aerospace to tour its facility. Ball is another one of our commercial aerospace partners and helps builds instruments that are on NASA spacecraft throughout the universe, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Ball designed and built the advanced optical technology and lightweight mirror system that will enable the James Webb Space Telescope to look 13.5 billion years back in time. 

Looking into the clean room at Ball Aerospace’s facility in Boulder, Colo., the team can see the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite. These sensors are used on spacecraft to track ozone measurements.

Here, the group stands in front of a thermal vacuum chamber used to test satellite optics. The Operation Land Imager-2 is being built for Landsat 9, a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey that will continue the Landsat Program’s 40-year data record monitoring the Earth’s landscapes from space.

See all the pictures from the Ball Aerospace visit HERE

We recently marked a decade since a new era began in commercial spaceflight development for low-Earth orbit transportation. We inked agreements in 2006 to develop rockets and spacecraft capable of carrying cargo such as experiments and supplies to and from the International Space Station. Learn more about commercial space HERE.

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February 1, 2003 - Following a successful 15 day, 22 hour mission consisting of mostly scientific experiments, Space Shuttle Columbia is destroyed during re-entry over the southwestern United States, resulting in the deaths of her seven crew. 

These were Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

During the launch of STS-107 on January 16, a piece of foam insulation broke from the external tank, striking the port-side wing and breaching the Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panels that experience some of the most intense heat during re-entry. This was the fatal blow that would prevent Columbia and her crew from returning home at Kennedy.

The loss of Columbia signaled the beginning of the end of the Space Transportation System, and the United States would be left without a manned space vehicle for years to come. 

However, the change brought by the loss of the Shuttle meant a new gap to be filled by the private sector companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada Corp, among others, that could focus on the resupply of the ISS with crew and cargo, allowing NASA to shift it’s focus to developing a new crewed vehicle to continue a mission of exploration of our solar system. 

“The cause of which they died will continue. Mankind was led into the darkness beyond our world with the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”


NASA prepares Orion capsule for debut deep-space test flight

A NASA spacecraft designed to one day fly astronauts to Mars rolled out of its processing hangar at the U.S. space agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday to be prepared for a debut test flight in December.

“This is a pretty historic moment for us,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion production operations manager, told reporters as workers prepared to move the capsule to a fueling depot. “This marks the end of the assembly process for the spacecraft.”

An unmanned version of the gumdrop-shaped Orion capsule, which has been under construction for three years, is due to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket on Dec. 4 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

United Launch Alliance is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co .

In December Orion will be flown to an altitude of about 3,600 miles (5,800 km) from Earth, 14 times farther away than the International Space Station.

The capsule will then careen back toward the planet, slamming into the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 kph). At that speed, Orion’s thermal protection system should heat up to about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius), proving the shield can protect astronauts returning from the moon and other deep-space destinations.

Orion is part of NASA’s follow-up program to the now-retired space shuttles that will allow astronauts to travel beyond the International Space Station, which flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.

A test flight with crew aboard is set for 2021. NASA intends to use the rocket and Orion to fly astronauts to an asteroid that has been robotically relocated into a high orbit around the moon. Eventually, the U.S. space agency wants to fly a four-member crew to Mars.

NASA has been out of the human space launch business since the shuttle program ended in 2011.

The agency currently buys rides for space station crew members aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. A heated three-way competition to build a U.S.-based commercial space taxi is also under way. The contenders are privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp and Boeing.

Work on the Orion deep-space capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, began more than a decade ago under NASA’s defunct Constellation moon program. NASA has already spent about $9 billion developing Orion.

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European Space Ship?

Do you remember the Dream Chaser space ship that was competing against SpaceX and Boeing for the NASA contract to become America’s next space shuttle?

Many assumed when they lost the bid that the Dream Chaser wouldn’t be happening… it’s resurfaced however.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the head of the German space agency has extended an arrangement with Sierra Nevada Corporation (the makers of the Dream Chaser) in which they both research possible European contributions to the space ship.

Right now the arrangement doesn’t mean much. There’s no exchange of cash, or contractual obligations on the part of either party.

In July however Johann-Dietrich Woerner gets a big promotion. He’ll be taking lead of the European Space Agency (yes, the people who recently landed on a comet).

Keep an eye on the news. Once he takes helm of such a large agency he may start trying to make official steps towards bringing the Dream Chaser into European hands.


(Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.)