EDWARDS, Calif. - The Ford F-450 was called into action recently when Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), a world-class prime systems integrator and electronic systems provider of technology solutions, needed a powerful work vehicle to aid in the testing of its Dream Chaser® spacecraft, a high-tech spacecraft that will replace the retired space shuttle orbiters. In what is a testament to the F-450’s true capabilities, rather than a mere marketing stunt, the truck played a significant role in getting the Dream Chaser ready to compete against two other vehicles for the job of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
According to John Roth, vice president, Strategy and Business Development for SNC’s Space Systems, NASA began developing its own small commuter-style spacecraft, the HL-20, in the 1990s to provide crewed access to ISS that would complement the space shuttle. The HL-20 offered lower operational costs, improved flight safety and the ability to land on conventional commercial runways. Unfortunately, development came to a halt when NASA budgets were significantly reduced. Fast forward to 2004 when NASA initiated a program to look at outsourcing both the cargo and crew transportation to ISS to commercial operators, known as the Commercial Cargo and Crew Initiative. A more efficient and affordable transportation system alternative was needed as the older shuttle orbiters that had been used to transport building materials during the construction of the ISS would soon be retiring.
Seizing upon this opportunity to build on a rich heritage, but apply new leading-edge capabilities, the SNC team went to work. Following NASA’s initial HL-20 spacecraft design for the exterior, SNC spent the last nine years designing the interior as well as perfecting the various sub-systems and technologies of its Dream Chaser vehicle to the spacecraft it is today – on the storied ramp of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in the high mountain desert of Edwards, Calif.
One critical phase of testing for the Dream Chaser involved a stock Ford F-450 towing the over 13,000 pound spacecraft test article in successive full-up ground tests at 10, 20, 40 and then 60 mph before releasing it on the runway. Once free from the tow, the SNC crew was able to test Dream Chaser’s ability to center itself on the runway and come to a complete stop entirely autonomously.
At a pace of six-to-10 trials at each speed, SNC was able to get a clear picture of how the spacecraft would perform. According to Roth, the F-450, with Dream Chaser in tow, reached the 60 mph mark much faster than the test crew anticipated. As a result, the crew redrew boundaries on the runway to make the test track/area shorter. The workhorse Ford F-450 delivered flawless results as a high reliability, fully capable tow vehicle that was the key to this successful series of tests – another true testament to American ingenuity delivering the results when they are needed most.
The next several months will be critical as Dream Chaser captive carry and approach and landing tests continue in parallel with a NASA competition for the purchase of astronaut crew transportation services to the ISS. NASA expects to notify the contract awardees in mid-2014. Until then, SNC’s Dream Chaser team will continue their development and test activities. The unique capabilities of the Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft will open a new era of space transportation, exploration, and utilization, propelled by Ford’s F-450, which helped pave the way forward on the road to success – yet another success story and example of how Ford and America are going further!