SCIENCE -- April 25, 2011 at 11:35 AM ET
With the Space Shuttle Retiring, Dream Chaser Aims to Fill the Gap
Graduate student Drew Gottula tests Dan Anderson's ability to reach the controls in the cockpit while simulating g-forces during takeoff.
In the basement of the aerospace engineering department at the University of Colorado, a team of graduate students sit in a mock fiberglass cockpit, where they simulate flipping switches on a fake dashboard. The board is divided into sections, with control switches and color printouts of monitor displays. A joystick bearing the University of Colorado Buffaloes logo sits in the middle console. NASA space suits, helmets, gloves and boots line several shelves in the lab.
Dan Anderson, a student at the university, pulls on a pair of gloves with green resistance bands tied around the wrists. Fellow student Drew Gottula sits behind the pilot's chair, tugging on the green bands. He is testing whether Anderson can reach the controls while he simulates the g-forces that act on an astronaut during take-off.
These graduate students have been tasked with an important mission: to help NASA and the Sierra Nevada Corporation design the cockpit for a new space capsule to transport cargo and crew to the International Space Station. The space plane is called the Dream Chaser.
When NASA's space shuttle program retires this year, the United States will be left without its own means of transport to the International Space Station. This means Americans will have to hitch a ride on Russian spacecraft Soyuz to get there.
There is no replacement for the shuttle. But this week NASA announced that $270 million dollars will be divided amongst Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation for commercial spaceflight development projects.
"We're eager to get started with these companies as fast as we can," said Philip McAlister, NASA's acting director of spaceflight development.
Sierra Nevada, which won $80 million of the NASA funds, is hoping to fill the gap left by the retiring shuttle by building the Dream Chaser space plane, a 30-foot long manned spacecraft capable of carrying seven crew members to low-level orbit.
And the eight aerospace engineering graduate students at the University of Colorado are designing the layout of the cockpit, and choosing which controls and displays to use.
Jim Voss, a retired astronaut working with Sierra Nevada and the university, is one of the faculty members heading the graduate research project. The partnership is ideal for everyone involved, he said. Sierra Nevada funds the university project and in return, has access to the university's resources, including the enthusiastic young engineers. And the students get real-world experience.
Plus, Voss adds, developing commercial spacecraft puts manned space flight one step closer to becoming a self-sustaining business, much like the air travel industry in the early twentieth century.
By the spring of 2012, they expect to have operational controls and displays ready to test, according to David Klaus, associate professor of aerospace engineering.
This partnership allows the company to design Dream Chaser in a way that's cost effective, while training aerospace engineers, Voss said. Two of his former graduate students have already been hired on at Sierra Nevada.
"Every one of these students is already an engineer," he says, "They're just as bright as any of the engineers at Sierra Nevada."
Despite her other coursework demands, Sarah Over, one of the students on the project, logged full-time hours on the project last week. "I didn't think I'd ever get to work on a human spacecraft, especially with NASA's budget problems," she said.