22 December 2010
Announcements - Vehicles (Good)
Virgin in a Three-Way Partnership
Sierra Nevada and Orbital Sciences join the mix
by G B Leatherwood
As anyone who has studied business knows, corporations merge and divide like amoebae in a Petrie dish, often to the point where we cannot even tell who is merging with whom.

So although we’d like to report that Virgin Galactic announced a partnership with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation, we need to lay out the decades-long complexities involving this partnership—not only for the readers’ benefits, but also so that we can understand it for ourselves...

During 1990 and 1991 engineering studies were conducted on the NASA HL-20 Personnel Launch System lifting body by students and faculty of the North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T University at the Langley Research Center. This research culminated in a full-scale model built with a ten-passenger capacity. This vehicle was to provide transportation of crew to and from the International Space Station upon completion of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

This envisioned vehicle was designed to carry passengers and not payload like the shuttle, so it was smaller, lighter, and more suited to easier maintenance and quicker turnaround between flights. In addition, it would be able to take off horizontally and land on conventional runways. Sadly, NASA cancelled the program, in spite of favorable design and construction analysis, and this flying vehicle was never built.

Fortunately the HL-20 lifting body concept and engineering data was preserved and is now the basis for the Dream Chaser vehicle that is currently being jointly developed by SpaceDev, a wholly owned subsidiary of the SNC, Orbital Sciences, and now Virgin Galactic.

For its part, SNC is working with the NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Office on the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program to develop and configure the system for ISS servicing; although that could be a lucrative revenue source for SpaceDev and SNC, current thinking goes far beyond just “servicing the ISS.”

To further complicate the situation, SNC has a memorandum of understanding with United Launch Alliance and is evaluating man-rating the Atlas 5 launch vehicle so it can be used to launch the Dream Chaser. Please note that this configuration still employs a huge, vertical-launched, single-use rocket.

It was originally thought that the Atlas 5/HL-20 combination would not work because of the stresses involved, but that no longer seems to be a problem. It should also be noted that SNC pioneered and provided the motors used by Scaled Composites in SpaceShipOne and will be used in future vehicles.

Not thoroughly confused yet? Well, stir Orbital Sciences Corporation (OS) into the mix.

The significance is that combining the revolutionary construction techniques of the SpaceShipTwo/WhiteKnightTwo vehicle with the work already done for the HL-20 lifting body, suborbital flights may expand to orbital flights with commercial possibilities far beyond space tourism. With the capability to take off and land at virtually every modern airfield anywhere in the world, passengers and freight can be carried with few of the limitations now experienced with vertical launched vehicles.

Add Virgin Galactic’s panache with the media, and we may actually have an industry-defining business in the make.

And considering that the new direction of NASA, articulated and championed by President Obama, where private industry has given the job of commercial space development, this new partnership will be ready to take on Obama’s challenge.

And we’ll be eagerly anticipating the results.
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G B Leatherwood 22 December 2010
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