Wings in Space
With the competition so close, the stakes so high, and the money amount so large, one can understand why they did it.
Sierra Nevada Corporation filed an official protest last week with the Government Accountability Office to trigger a closer look at NASA’s decision to award contracts to SpaceX and Boeing. In their press release announcing the action, they claim that the price of their bid was almost a billion dollars lower than Boeing’s, and comparable in the other selection criteria. The details of the selection data have not yet been released.
The Dream Chaser space plane is a lifting-body craft after roughly the same style as the Space Shuttle, but much smaller. It is built to be launched on an Atlas V rocket, the same as Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, but then land on a runway. It would ride to space on the front of it’s booster rocket, instead of strapped to the side of the assembly like the Space Shuttle.
The main advantages of a space plane over a capsule are flexibility of landing options and a gentler reentry and landing. Space planes are also designed from the ground up to be reusable, at least in theory, depending on how much re-work (turn-around) they require between flights. They’re also way cool of course. Some folks complain a lot about how capsules are a very old idea, and prefer the exploration of more advanced ideas that make better use of current and future technologies. But anything that excites public interest in space increases awareness, encourages our children to do their math, and gets enterprising people thinking and dreaming. Space planes excite folks more than capsules, and that has value of its own.
The drawback is that current technology for the more energetic types of engines necessary to reach orbit requires large amounts of fuel, and everywhere that you go in space involves changing the velocity of whatever weight you brought along for the ride. Well…wings need to be strong. The wings and the structure of the craft itself need to be solid. This makes for a very heavy vehicle, when compared to a capsule, and thus it requires more weight in fuel to move it around. Critics of the space plane concept complain mostly about a spacecraft launching and carrying around all of that extra weight for the entire mission in order to have wings, just to use them for only 20 minutes or so to glide back to Earth at the end of the flight. Also, space planes are far more complicated to design than capsules, and so they are more expensive and time-consuming to develop, build, and operate. You can reuse a space plane, but re-usability has to run much deeper than just re-flying the air frame. As much as we all loved the Space Shuttles, the cost to turn them around was drastically high. You might as well replace the engine and paint-job on your car after every round-trip to work and back. They were also prohibitively, dangerously, complex…high-maintenance primadonnas. They forced NASA to expend vast amounts time, effort, reputation and resources just to keep them flying. In the end, the Shuttle program overshadowed everything else to the point to where it could not be sustained alongside the need to build new vehicles for deep-space. The other problem, which added to the expense, was that it was funded as a government sponsored program reliant on Congress, which cares more about spending money on expensive spacecraft than it does about exploring space. The Dream Chaser does not suffer from most of these problems, but still has to live some of them down.
Sierra Nevada seems to enjoy more popularity in the New Space community than Boeing, but less than SpaceX. SpaceX is the “Golden Child” of New Space while Boeing is the “Golden Child” of Congress. I don’t see Boeing undertaking this effort for the glory of spaceflight alone, so the CST-100 program would likely end if it became unprofitable. Dragon and Dream Chaser on the other hand might live on even if they had to be operated at a small loss, because their companies look to the future profitability that would result from expanded capabilities and the promise of lower priced access to space that those platforms represent. That is the spirit of New Space, not looking to rely (only) on the old space customers of the past, but creating a new market for both the old and new space customers of the future. The New Space cheerleaders that I’ve spoken with and seen comments from, many of whom seemed very upset that Boeing received a larger contract award than SpaceX, seem split on the topic of Dream Chaser being down-selected out of the running. That could change in a hurry if close investigation starts to show that Sierra Nevada is nearly as close to building a viable spacecraft as the other two contenders, and would cost taxpayers $.9 billion dollars less than one of them. I think the New Space community would prefer to polish a space plane for flight, than spend that same money and more on what is perceived (deservedly or not) as an Old Space throwback capsule made by an Old Space hold-out corporation.