Langley Lends a Hand for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser Shuttle

NASA technician Ricky Hall prepares a scale model of Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spacecraft for tests inside the Unitary Plan wind tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. (Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)
NASA technician Ricky Hall prepares a scale model of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft for tests inside the Unitary Plan wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. (Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

By Sasha Congiu
NASA’s Langley Research Center, Va.

With meticulous effort and attention to detail, NASA technician Ricky Hall hand-glued 250 grains of sand across a 22-inch long model of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft. Each individually placed grain of sand creates turbulent flow along the vehicle, simulating what the actual spacecraft will experience during flight.

After more than four hours of prep work, the model was ready for testing in the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

As part of Space Act Agreement with the agency for use of the wind tunnel as part of a milestone during the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SNC spent six weeks observing how turbulent flow affects the Dream Chaser model at different angles and positions. The use of Langley’s facilities as well as the center’s experienced engineering team has been integral to SNC’s progress with the Dream Chaser so far.

“The NASA-SNC effort makes for a solid, complementary relationship,” said Andrew Roberts, SNC aerodynamics test lead. “It is a natural fit. NASA facilities and the extensive work they’ve done with the Dream Chaser predecessor, HL-20, combined with SNC’s engineering, is synergistic and provides great results.”

Based on Langley’s HL-20 lifting-body design, the Dream Chaser spacecraft combines years of NASA analysis and wind tunnel research with SNC engineering, developing a reusable spacecraft that can ferry crew and critical cargo to and from low-Earth orbit.

The scale model of the Dream Chaser is readied for wind tunnel testing at high speeds that simulate the conditions it will encounter during its flight through the atmosphere returning from space. (Credit:  NASA/David C. Bowen)
The scale model of the Dream Chaser is readied for wind tunnel testing at high speeds that simulate the conditions it will encounter during its flight through the atmosphere returning from space. (Credit:
NASA/David C. Bowen)

During testing, teams of Langley and SNC engineers worked around the clock to quickly gather the required data.

According to NASA test engineer Bryan Falman, all the data acquired will be used to validate computer models and populate the Dream Chaser spacecraft performance database.

Engineers compared the data taken from the tests at the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel to existing computer models to determine if adjustments were needed or if their predictions were accurate.

The data did, in fact, turn out to be accurate. So, the late nights were worth it for the continued development and performance advancement of the Dream Chaser spacecraft.

  • windbourne

    It is great to see this progressing. But more importantly, to see NASA’s help making a large difference.
    I get so tired of those trolls that run around knocking NASA, while not understanding that it is CONgress that causes 99% of the issues with them.
    NASA has a great deal of talent and desperately want to work with other companies and groups to make space and flight better.
    And right now, they are focused on making American space better.

  • therealdmt

    Wow, people sure have put a lot of work into this thing. It’d be a crime to see it all go for naught, but they may have bet on the wrong horse (Atlas V) and the track may be going out of business (ISS).

    Placing grains of sand by hand, working day and night — dang!

  • therealdmt

    I agree except to say that it was NASA who, a long time ago (and so not even the present people), adopted the method of intentionally dividing up their work among various and select political districts so as to insure continuing political support for the organization’s endeavors. It’s somewhat a matter of “Be careful what you wish for!”

    Now, congress, or as you like to say (and as I’m now starting to see it in my head whenever I think of the word!), CONgress, is totally invested in these NASA programs and refuses to let them go — even when it flies in the face of common sense, undermines any actual achievement of stated objectives, and bloats the very budget that they go endlessly on about being too big!

    Even NASA itself, or at least a significant portion of NASA (which appears to be a very segmented organization, with each segment in its own silo) would like to drop the SLS (which they never even asked for) and Orion, get commercial crew going and expand outward with a lunar L-point station based on the ISS or inflatables, commercial cislunar service, solar electric propulsion, an asteroid retrieval, commercial landers on the moon, etc. – in other words, a sustainable

  • therealdmt

    …presence in space.

    But congress has their claws in big government construction programs and won’t let it go and let things actually happen.

    Sigh. We’re SO close…

  • windbourne

    Yup. Totally agree with everything you wrote. Sadly.

  • Solartear

    What’s so bad about Orion? The Commercial Crew vehicles don’t seem very good for extended stay in BEO. Does Orion offer nothing more? Probably expensive, but there isn’t an alternative in the near future. (MCT will take longer than Orion)

  • delphinus100

    “,,, intentionally dividing up their work among various and select political
    districts so as to insure continuing political support for the
    organization’s endeavors.”

    Agreed, but the flip side is that many large projects wouldn’t happen at all, if you didn’t have multiple senators/representatives supporting them. It’s a Faustian bargain that the DoD has to make a lot of, too.

    And in both cases, process sometimes becomes more important than results.

  • delphinus100

    “What’s so bad about Orion? The Commercial Crew vehicles don’t seem very good for extended stay in BEO.”

    Nor are they meant to. The idea is to get people and some cargo to a station (and not necessarily ISS), *maybe* some quick satellite servicing, and back. They’re like the helicopter or small boat that services an offshore oil platform. They don’t have to have transoceanic capability.

    There’s not much need for a spacecraft to have long duration in LEO (again, that’s what stations are for), Orion is meant to do that where no other human infrastructure currently is (or may be there, but is a significant transit time away), like Lunar orbit or the Lagrange points. It’s expensive overkill for LEO station access, and by itself in LEO, would be essentially repeating Apollo 7. You might fly it once like that for testing, but that’s all. (and for something like a NEO mission, it might still need an additional Bigelow-ish module)

    Ultimately however, Dragon might overlap LEO access with deep-space endurance. Its heat shield was built with high-speed re-entries in mind from the start.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Well I don’t see that Orion, the vehicle itself, is designed for extended stay or BEO.
    Only a hab, with dedicated crew and work quarters, radiation protection (including storm shelter) and discrete air lock, really qualifies in my book. Orion is just an ever so slightly larger version of Dragon or CST-100, with (presumably) a beefed up life support and the ability to suck up its atmosphere to allow for spacewalks. I don’t see how these extra features are anything but independent subsystems.

    A stack with propulsion module, hab and re-entry capsule could have been built for way less than Orion is costing and have superior capability.

  • larryj8

    What’s wrong with Orion? For one thing, they’ve already spent over $5 billion on it and are continuing to spend another billion every year. It’s overweight and they’ve reduced the planned capability many times. It’s the SLS of capsules. Other than that, what’s not to love?