Chasing a Dream in Spaceflight

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CU alumnus Todd Mosher sits at the controls of the Dream Chaser simulator at Sierra Nevada Space Systems in Louisville.
Sierra Nevada Space Systems in Louisville employs as many as 60 CU alumni, some of whom are pictured here.
Mosher talks with Penina Axelrad, chair of the aerospace engineering sciences department.

With a passion for space travel that began in childhood, it’s no surprise that Todd Mosher (MS AeroEngr ’95, PhD ’00) chose a career building spacecraft.

Mosher’s father worked for Martin Marietta at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so he grew up hearing stories about the robotic spacecraft being built there and the planets to which the vehicles would travel. In his bedroom, with walls bedecked with astronaut wallpaper, Mosher dreamed about going into space.

Now, as director of design and development for Dream Chaser, Mosher is helping build a human spacecraft. At Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), Mosher helps lead a team of more than 150 engineers and technicians who are developing the commercial spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

“It may sound clichéd, but working on Dream Chaser is a dream come true,” says Mosher. “It was disappointing that the Space Shuttle program ended, but now we have an exciting opportunity to do something innovative that will have commercial sustainability. As a world leader, the U.S. needs to fly its own astronauts.”

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, American astronauts have had to hitch rides to the space station on the Russian Soyuz. It is hoped that Dream Chaser, which is based on NASA’s HL-20 design from two decades ago, will be the vehicle that enables U.S. astronauts to once again travel into space on their own timetable. Colorado-based SNC is partnering with NASA to develop this commercial crew space transportation system as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program.

Looking a bit like a mini space shuttle, Dream Chaser is winged for a pilot-controlled landing on conventional runways. It launches vertically on an Atlas V rocket and is designed to carry up to seven people, plus cargo.

In the early 1990s, Mosher also worked on a launch vehicle project using a similar design to the current Dream Chaser crew transportation system, which eventually became the Atlas and Delta rockets in use today, so his career has come full circle.

Mosher’s trajectory to the Dream Chaser project began after earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from CU-Boulder. He also has a master’s in systems engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from San Diego State University.

Prior to becoming director of design and development, Mosher was director of spacecraft business development at SNC where he helped win the Orbcomm Second Generation program to build 18 satellites. And he managed a program for designing rapid response space vehicles that the U.S. Department of Defense could use in wartime.

Before joining SNC in 2006, Mosher worked at Lockheed Martin on NASA’s plans to return to the moon. He has also worked for The Aerospace Corporation and General Dynamics.

In 2009, Mosher was a finalist for the NASA Astronaut Corps. In 2012, the CU-Boulder Alumni Association presented the Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Graduate Award to Mosher for his extraordinary achievements in the sciences and for his continued and thoughtful support of CU-Boulder. The award is named in honor of Chawla (MS AeroEngr ’86, PhD ’88), who died in 2003 aboard the space shuttle Columbia when it broke apart during re-entry.

“It’s an honor to receive the award for what it represents,” says Mosher. “Going into space is challenging and we’re trying to design the safest human spaceflight vehicle possible.”

Mosher draws inspiration from many areas. Robert Heinlein’s book, The Man Who Sold the Moon, resonates with him because of its story line about spaceflight being a commercial venture. Not surprisingly, individuals he admires include astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong, Jim Voss, and Steve Lindsey.

“To have astronauts fly on something I’ve designed is an engineer’s dream,” says Mosher. “There are times in your career that you look back on and treasure. This is one of them. If they have an extra seat in the back, maybe I can catch a ride.”

He credits the College of Engineering and the aerospace department for helping prepare him for an out-of-this-world career. “In my opinion,” says Mosher, “CU has one of the top-tier aerospace schools. Its greater emphasis on space helped me be a better engineer to work in the space program.”

When not focused on getting humans into space, Mosher finds balance in his life through outdoor activities such as hiking, stand-up paddle boarding, and camping with his wife and three children. He’s training for a triathlon this spring to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Like his father, Mosher tells stories about his work on Dream Chaser to his children, ages 12, 14, and 16, although they don’t have space-themed bedrooms.

“I wasn’t good enough to be a major-league baseball pitcher,” he jokes, “but fortunately I was able to fall back on this career.”

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