Published: April 21, 2011

Faculty and students at the University of Colorado Boulder will continue to play a significant role in the development of the Dream Chaser, a commercial spacecraft that will be used to carry astronauts to low Earth orbit, thanks to a new $80 million grant from NASA to Sierra Nevada Corp.

The Louisville, Colo.-based aerospace company was one of four companies to receive grants this week from NASA's Commercial Crew Development program. The grant is a follow-on to Sierra Nevada's NASA grant of $20 million for the Dream Chaser last year.

Roughly the size of a business jet, the 30-foot-long Dream Chaser is slated to launch vertically on an Atlas V rocket and land horizontally on conventional runways, similar to the much larger space shuttle. The spacecraft is based on NASA's earlier HL-20 lifting body design.

As part of its continuing development of the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada will fund "human rating" research led by CU-Boulder Professor David Klaus of the aerospace engineering sciences department, according to Jim Voss, a CU faculty member and vice president of Sierra Nevada. Human rating research is aimed at developing a methodology for evaluating safety and operational aspects of spacecraft intended to transport crew.

"This is a great industry-academia collaboration that combines providing design input for the Dream Chaser to Sierra Nevada with four related thesis topics being pursued by Ph.D. students in our program," Klaus said.

Sierra Nevada also will sponsor and fund a continuation of the CU-Boulder graduate student project involving Dream Chaser displays and controls, Voss said. The graduate project is focused on cockpit design and ergonomics evaluation to determine the best placement and type of controls to be used by the crew. The students are being advised by Voss and his colleague Joe Tanner, both of whom joined the CU-Boulder faculty after retiring as NASA astronauts.

Klaus, who heads the aerospace department's bioastronautics focus area, has set up a laboratory in CU-Boulder's Engineering Center housing three mock-ups of the spacecraft. One is a full-scale model of the Dream Chaser based on the earlier HL-20 design that is on loan from NASA to Sierra Nevada; another is a 15 percent scale model unit that was used for flight testing last December, and the third is the cockpit section being used to evaluate the layout for instrument displays and controls. A "public day" is being planned so that the community will have a chance to view the project.

"The University of Colorado and Sierra Nevada Corporation have formed a partnership that allows use of the tremendous intellectual resources of students and professors to help develop a commercial human spacecraft, the Dream Chaser," said Voss. "I'm really pleased to continue the work that was started last year and look forward to more student involvement with this exciting project."

CU Aerospace Engineering professor and former NASA astronaut Jim Voss poses with students and a spacecraft model, the Dream Chaser, used for teaching purposes and housed at a hangar in Centennial Airport. Students outside of the craft: Aerospace graduate students Christine Fanchiang, Taylor Donaldson. Inside the cockpit: Chad Healy, left, and Ben Kemper, Aerospace Engineering undergrad. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)