Astronaut Pilots a "Dream" at NASA Langley
Though U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. and recently minted NASA astronaut Jack Fischer hopes to go to space one day, he spent an entire day in May coming back to Earth.
Fischer was one of four astronauts who visited the Cockpit Motion Facility at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., May 15-17 to fly a simulation of the Dream Chaser, a lifting-body spacecraft developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of Colorado Springs, Colo. He was joined by fellow NASA astronauts Rex Walheim, Gregory Johnson and Scott Tingle.
Fischer repeatedly flew the Dream Chaser on a simulated approach-and-landing run at Edwards Air Force Base in California, a simulation meant to mimic the final 10,000 feet and 60 seconds of the spacecraft's descent after re-entering Earth's atmosphere following a trip back from space. He and the other astronauts were providing feedback on the Dream Chaser's performance in a variety of atmospheric conditions, which will allow for future improvements to the spacecraft.
A former test pilot, Fischer had high praise for the Langley personnel involved in developing the flight control laws in use in the simulator. He said he was pleased with how refined the experience was already.
"It really is impressive how good it flies," Fischer said. "It really does fly like a dream already, and with small improvements I think it's going to fly even better."
The Dream Chaser is based on NASA's HL-20 lifting-body design, and it combines years of NASA analysis and wind tunnel research with SNC's engineering, resulting in a fully reusable spacecraft that could ferry crews to low-Earth orbit and return them to Earth with a runway landing. SNC is further developing the spacecraft in collaboration with NASA's Commercial Crew Program during the agency's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative.
According to John Martin, the technical lead for commercial space activity at Langley, the current plan is to have the Dream Chaser ready for operation around 2017.
Plans call for the Dream Chaser to be launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying a crew of up to seven. If there is a smaller crew aboard, room could be made for a small amount of cargo.
Bruce Jackson, a senior aerospace technologist at Langley, said engineers at the center will continue to refine Dream Chaser's re-entry dynamics in the coming months.
"We're gradually expanding the envelope of our control system to handle higher altitude, higher speeds, all the way to landing," Jackson said.
Jackson, who was part of the original Langley team that developed the HL-20, estimates that around the middle of 2013 they will be able to simulate a Mach 1 approach from 30,000 feet with a full rollout on the runway, and he hopes to have Fischer back for another round of testing.
According to Fischer, compared to the fighter jets he's used to flying, the Dream Chaser handles more like a glider. Though he had the luxury of landing the simulator over and over again, gliders aren't particularly forgiving when it comes to landings.
"You've got to make it work the first time," Fischer said, "because you can't power up and go around and try again."
That's exactly why Fischer and the team at Langley are working so hard to fine tune SNC's dream.
For more information about NASA's Commercial Crew Program, visit:
Joe Atkinson NASA Langley Research Center