Nevada company with Durham ties joins space race

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 01:08 PM

A Nevada company is vying for contracts for the delivery of a spacecraft that can transport people to the International Space Station, and engineers in Durham are playing a role in that effort.

Private companies stepped in to compete for contracts to deliver cargo and, hopefully, astronauts, to the space station, after NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011.

According to information from Sierra Nevada Corp., the company is one of three for-profit businesses competing for the NASA contract that would pay for a vehicle to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit, alongside The Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is the company also known as “SpaceX” that’s run by PayPal co-founder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.

Called the “Dream Chaser,” Sierra Nevada Corp.’s spacecraft is being designed to look similar to a space shuttle with what’s called a “lifting body,” and to be able to land on commercial runaways. NASA already has awarded the company millions to-date for the development of the vehicle, which is targeted to take its first unmanned, orbital test flight in November 2016. The company already conducted an atmospheric test flight.

Sierra Nevada is a technology company that dates to 1963. It formed a space technology division after acquiring the aerospace business Space Dev Inc. in 2008, and after merging it with another subsidiary, MicroSat Systems Inc., in 2009. The division also is working on U.S. small-satellite production, satellite operations, propulsion systems and other space technologies.

The Durham office has been operating for 10 years, and previously was part of Space Dev Inc.

The office is one of six of the company’s locations in the United States. The 30 workers at the site are involved in designing, building and testing space products, including electromechanical hardware such as motors for satellites, rovers and interplanetary missions. For the Dream Chaser, employees in Durham worked on flight-control equipment.

In total, Sierra Nevada has more than 3,000 workers in the United States and around the world. Other divisions include electronic warfare/range instruments, information and sensors and integrated mission systems. In 2011, the company was ranked No. 6 by Inc. magazine among the fastest-growing companies with revenues in the billion-dollar range. At that time, its revenue was $1.2 billion, according to the company.