Nevada company competing in for-profit space race celebrates Durham office

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 07:36 PM

Engineers at a Durham office design and build parts that go into satellites, probes and other space technology.

Now the office, part of Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp.’s space systems division, is also designing parts for a new project. They’re working on equipment that would help control the flight path of a new spacecraft called the “Dream Chaser,” which they hope will be selected for NASA contracts for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

“It’s amazing -- we’re helping enable commercial companies to fly to outer space,” said Charlie Hodges, program director for Sierra Nevada Space Systems, who led a tour through the Durham office on Thursday. The office opened its doors to Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce leaders, elected officials and others to mark 10 years of continuous operations. The office came under its current ownership through a series of acquisitions, and dates to 2004 as part of a company called Starsys Research Corp.

Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Corp. and the head of the company’s space systems division, said the Durham office has grown about 40 percent in the past three years, and is expected to continue to grow. It employs 30 full-time workers. He outlined work that the business has accomplished in space technology. His list included motor work for the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that’s designed to transport tourists into space, and a component that helped NASA’s Mars rover, the Curiosity, to land.

The Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada’s seven-passenger vehicle, he said, that’s being designed to replace the space shuttle. Private companies have stepped in to compete to deliver cargo and, hopefully, astronauts, to the International 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 that have partnered with NASA contracts to develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit. The others are The Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is the company also known as “SpaceX” run by PayPal co-founder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.

Trevor Perrotto, a NASA spokesman, confirmed that Sierra Nevada is one of three spacecraft development partners, and added the agency is just launching the second phase of a contract procurement process.

“We’re beginning the process that will lead us to eventually being able to contract services with one or more companies to transport astronauts,” he said.

Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser 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 runways. NASA has already awarded the company more than $330 million for the development of the vehicle, according to the company. The vehicle has gone through an atmospheric test flight, and is targeted to do a first unmanned, orbital test flight in November 2016.

Hodges said the Durham office was selected to do work on components of the Dream Chaser project about six months ago, beating out outside contractors for the work. About half of the engineering work at the office right now is devoted to that project, he said. After design, the project will go into testing and assembly.

Thursday, he showed off office space, clean-assembly rooms, and testing equipment in the office, including a test chamber that can simulate space conditions. They pump air out of the chamber, and temperatures can range from very cold to hot.

Another testing set-up, referred to as the company’s “Ferris wheel,” was designed to test hardware during the opening and closing of doors on a spacecraft.

Hodges said the Durham office taps talent that has been in the area since the 1970s, A series of other companies employed workers here before that work was shifted elsewhere. The workers have advanced degrees, he said, many from N.C. State University.

Sierra Nevada employs about 3,000 people globally. The space systems division is based in Colorado. Other divisions include electronic warfare/range instruments, information and sensors, and integrated mission systems. In 2011, the company was ranked as No. 6 by Inc. magazine among the fast-growing companies with revenues in the billion-dollar range. At that time, that time, its revenue was $1.2 billion, according to the company.