Launching with $20M: Sparks company gets NASA funds for passenger spacecraft design |

Launching with $20M: Sparks company gets NASA funds for passenger spacecraft design

Courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corp.

A Northern Nevada company received a boost to its efforts to be at the forefront of the United State’s commercial spacecraft industry after NASA announced last week the company will get $20 million in funding.

Out of the five companies to receive funding, Sparks-based Sierra Nevada Corporation got the most as it develops the Dream Chaser, a seven passenger spacecraft designed to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station orbiting Earth.

Mark N. Sirangelo, the corporate vice president of the company’s Sierra Nevada Space Systems, was in Washington, D.C., last week when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveiled the five companies that competed for and now share $50 million in stimulus funds to continue building what could be an emerging commercial spacecraft industry.

“The president has asked NASA to partner with the aerospace industry in a fundamentally new way, making commercially provided services the primary mode of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station,” Bolden said.

Other companies that got funds included Blue Origin, $3.7 million; Boeing Company, $18 million; Paragon Space Development Corporation, $1.4 million; and United Launch Alliance, $6.7 million.

A commercial spacecraft industry would help reduce costs for NASA in the long run, Sirangelo said.

When the NASA space shuttle flies its last mission this year, as expected, U.S. astronauts will use Russian spacecraft for their missions to the International Space Station.

As a result, “We’re paying the Russians $15 million per flight per astronaut,” Sirangelo said. “It sits three people, we’re allowed to get one of those three seats. Starting next year and the foreseeable future our ability to get people into space will be reliant on that service.”

He adds, why would the United States want to rely on the Russians “when potentially you could be doing that in the United States?”

Sierra Nevada Corp., which was founded in Sparks in 1963, acquired California-based SpaceDev in 2008, which has been developing the Dream Chaser for several years. The project is based on NASA’s HL-20 concept from the 1990s, which never took off.

Sirangelo said the spacecraft is expected to be fully operational by 2014.

Still, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel issued a warning about the need for safety standards in commercial space flight. Sirangelo said commercial spacecraft would be regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration like other aircraft developed by companies.

“It is crucial that NASA focus on establishing the certification requirements, a certification process for orbital transportation vehicles and a process for validating compliance,” the panel wrote in its 2009 annual report.

Bretton Alexander, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, hailed the $50 million in funding in a statement released last week, saying the “U.S. industry is ready to handle the task of commercial human spaceflight. Commercial spaceflight means growing an entire industry that will generate returns to our economy and allow America to stop sending billions of dollars to Russia to fly our astronauts.”

Sirangelo said the $20 million will help Sierra Nevada Corp. fine tune the Dream Chaser project, adding he expects the company will compete for more funds within the year when NASA begins to narrow down which companies to invest its money into.

He said engineers and some manufacturing operations are based in Northern Nevada, but the company has production facilities in 10 states, employing about 2,000 people. In Nevada, the company has about 400 employees.

If the company continues to receive federal funding for its efforts, “there will be additional manufacturing jobs, which includes Nevada,” he said.