Chasing Dreams: SNC and Spirit Defense and Space

Last week’s analysis mentioned the concern about nations targeting LEO broadband commercial assets in space. Another author noted the same challenges not just for commercial communications satellites but for all commercial satellites, including Earth observation platforms run by the likes of Planet and Capella. From that commentary:

“If ever-advancing capabilities make commercial systems more desirable military targets, this additional layer of risk could increase the costs to insure, protect, or replace potentially targetable space systems. While larger companies like SpaceX may be able to diffuse the risk of catastrophic damage to their systems via the sheer number of satellites in their constellations, smaller companies may have to invest in mitigation methods or counter-measures to protect satellite systems from attack or interference.”

That paragraph expounds more on my concerns about those challenges. Of course, SpaceX and Amazon might be well-insulated from threats. Still, smaller companies, especially those with start-up Earth observation budgets, don’t have the luxury of using thousands of satellites to deter an attack. Worse, because these satellites are in space and moving quickly above it, many physical attacks instigated by a regional conflict would impact a company’s global customer base. It’s not good for business.

The article is quite a good review of the activities and possible outcomes on the space industry from the Russian-Ukraine war. I recommend those interested in that sort of thing to give it a read.

On to this week’s analysis…

The Dream is Still Alive (Surprisingly)

Those who have followed Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) “progress” with its Dream Chaser spacecraft and know my sense of humor will understand me when I say that the spacecraft is aptly named. It is one of those eternal projects, always on reality’s edge but entirely within the fog of a dream. Flailing around in that fog hoping to bring a spacecraft to fruition is the dream pursued in the decades since its public announcement in 2004 (by SpaceDev). Although, the Dream Chaser concept vehicle is even older, being bandied about as early as 1989. People were suggesting using Titan III rockets to launch it at the time. SNC acquired SpaceDev and Dream Chaser in 2008.

But it has not launched into space yet.

With this frame of mind, I read an SNC press release announcing its partnership with Spirit Aerosystems. It’s not apparent how Spirit is a space company. SNC refers to the company as Spirit Defense and Space. However, Spirit Defense and Space was a name change that the company, Spirit Aerosystems Holdings, Inc., announced a year ago. At the time, Spirit noted that the reason to change the name to Spirit Defense and Space was to “…reflect more completely its customer base and capabilities.” A cursory look at a few main pages yields no information about Spirit’s space business. It may be the company is relying on its thermal protection products for hypervelocity vehicles as an argument for its being a space business?

The Dream of Space Commercialization?

What caught my eye was the phrase “…Significantly Lower the Cost of Access to Space…” in the release’s much-too-long title. SNC’s CEO explained the intent of working with Spirit:

“Working with Spirit Defense & Space, we will broaden access to tomorrow’s space economy; lowering the cost of entry and increasing the speed to market of Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser franchise. Together we will accelerate the commercialization of space.”

Perhaps those words are meant to inspire confidence. But, for me, it inspires a gag reflex as it’s the type of language used to sound good while meaning nothing. That last line is hilarious, given just how slowly SNC has pushed on with Dream Chaser. 

For comparison, SpaceX was founded two years before Dream Chaser’s announcement. While SpaceX now operates two rocket systems, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and has iterated through several versions of its Dragon capsule, SNC has yet to do anything that contributes to the commercialization of space with Dream Chaser and Shooting Star. And the missions that both target are paid for by government customers, not commercial ones. 

Unlike Boeing’s Starliner challenges, SNC isn’t beholden to ensuring only ULA gets its business. For example, it’s working with Arianespace for a European mission and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for other opportunities. Such connections may provide scenarios for using Dream Chaser in truly commercial missions, which is not a possibility that Boeing seems to be pursuing for Starliner (or Northrop with Cygnus, which is a better comparison). However, the dependence on other companies to provide launch vehicles may prove to be a more significant challenge than SNC anticipated initially, especially if those vehicles come to fruition. The challenge would stem from the dedication of most of their rockets to launching either military missions or Kuipersats.

There’s also a niggling voice reminding me that Dream Chaser is old. I wonder just how cutting-edge Dream Chaser’s technology is compared with Cygnus or Dragon. It was announced before the iPhone was introduced. The concept is even older, when laptops were the size of typewriters, possibly indicating the Dream Chaser’s technology is older and larger. Older technology may indicate more mass dedicated to the spacecraft’s operations. It may also mean less automation, leading to requiring more humans to service Dream Chaser. Perhaps part of why Dream Chaser has never been to space is because the company constantly iterates the technology it’s using? That, I admit, is the optimistic spin on the company’s long development time for Dream Chaser.

It’s also unclear how SNC and Spirit will lower the cost of entry to space. Dream Chaser and Shooting Star rely on rockets that will still be more expensive. So yes, those operators say their rockets will be cheaper than the ones they currently operate…but not significantly. And if SNC believes that the integrated stack of Shooting Star and Dream Chaser will cost less than a Cygnus or Dragon Capsule…it would be interesting to see the company’s math about that and identify the many rounding errors.

Accelerated Dreams

However, one of the primary reasons for the SNC/Spirit partnership is to more quickly complete SNC’s Shooting Star cargo “add-on” pack. The cargo module is attached to the rear of Dream Chaser. It appears to serve as a structural mount between Dream Chaser and whatever rocket it’s launching on. All while transporting at least 9,000 kg of cargo (this is much more than Dragon or Cygnus). Dream Chaser and Shooting Star are critical for SNC’s fulfilling its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contractual obligations to NASA. By 2024, SNC is supposed to have launched six Dream Chaser missions using ULA’s Vulcan Centaur to the International Space Station (ISS).

The first launch of the Vulcan will probably be sometime in early 2023 (but don’t hold your breath). Based on SNC’s history with Dream Chaser and current realities for the launch system it’s relying on, “increasing the speed to market” seems not just unlikely but unnecessary. It’s also unclear how SNC with Spirit will broaden access to the space economy. There needs to be an actual product (or service) to do that. SNC has neither. 

It’s unclear how Spirit will help SNC accelerate the speed at which Shooting Star and Dream Chaser are developed to keep to the CRS-2 timeline. Even excellent partnerships with the best communications tend to experience slow-downs in projects as people, and responsibilities get turned on their heads and moved around. The time it takes to transition to a cohesive team could jeopardize Dream Chaser. Being so close to meeting NASA contract deadlines surely must have been considered before SNC decided to go with Spirit. 

Whether the company’s worse-than-Blue-Origin-like pacing accelerates anything is questionable. SNC and Spirit both rely on government contracts for their businesses. We know that SNC embraces the pacing that working for the U.S. government likes–sluglike–and it’s likely Spirit is of a similar mind. Even if Spirit isn’t, the company may work with its partner’s less demanding pacing.

All of the above might be offset due to Spirit’s manufacturing chops. In the same release, Spirit indicates that is what it’s bringing to SNC: 

“Spirit AeroSystems brings unparalleled value in terms of design for manufacturability and industrialization to help scale production rates on the Dream Chaser and its derivatives…”

What that statement says, I think, is that Spirit can design Shooting Star (and Dream Chaser later) to be mass-produced on its factory floor, rapidly. If it can do this quickly enough, it may be that it makes up for the potential time that both teams lose as they become less dysfunctional while working together. Spirit’s mass production may also help keep the costs for both to be lower than those resulting from SNC building them with its own resources. 

Aside from that, it’s tough to tell not just what the company’s space industry experience and technology are but how those are applied to help accelerate the development and manufacturing of Shooting Star and Dream Chaser. The partnership would make more sense if they were partnering to work on military and defense projects. 

However, it’s unlikely that this project partnership will broaden access to the space economy. Aside from SNC fulfilling its contract with NASA, Dream Chaser’s and Shooting Star’s futures aren’t clear. None of this will accelerate the commercialization of space.

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