Dream Chaser Spacecraft

Dream Chaser® Spacecraft: Aerospace Engineering

Seamus Tuohy

There's a New Space Shuttle in Development... And it Can Fly Itself!

At Draper and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), space engineers are preparing for the next generation cargo ship to ferry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. has been relying solely on Russia to bring supplies and crew to the ISS. Sierra Nevada Corporation is building the Dream Chaser spacecraft and Draper is responsible for the flight computers, the brains.

Draper Software Engineer Alan Campbell is in charge of the flight control computers that will autonomously pilot the spacecraft on its missions. "We are designing and building both the guidance navigation and control flight software as well as the overall flight computers on which the software operate, and we are also helping SNC out with design of their avionics systems and simulation development," says Campbell. One of the most critical and comprehensive test phases for Draper is developing and running countless simulations for all models and sensors to make sure these flight computers are fool proof. They have models for every sensor in the spacecraft, the control surfaces as well as the vehicle dynamics. This way the computers actually think they are talking to the vehicle when they are talking to our simulation machines. This creates a virtual "flying lab" that ensures the most accurate testing environment. Campbell puts this in perspective when he says, "designing and implementing software that's going to fly itself is an insanely complex process."

The Draper team has even developed a sophisticated flight simulator just for the Dream Chaser, an extremely realistic video game that is tough even for a seasoned professional. Nerds at heart, the Draper team may not get to explore space first-hand, but creating these complex simulators is the next best thing. Autonomous spacecraft like the Dream Chaser will pave the way for future vehicles' manned and robotic missions not only to the Space Station but beyond, to the moon and Mars.