Thursday May 17, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- They both come from Pittsfield, but Jan D'Angelo and NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson have never met.

Yet they have something in common: space travel.

D'Angelo works for a Col orado-based company that's helping to develop a vehicle to travel to the International Space Station, a venue that Wilson visited three times as a member of NASA's space shuttle program.

The new vehicle, known as the "Dream Chaser," is being developed to ferry between two and seven passengers and/or cargo to the Inter national Space Station be cause the federal government ended the space shuttle program last year.

It is one of four similar pro ducts to replace the space shuttle being developed by private enterprise interests with funding from NASA's Com mercial Crew Development Program.

"The only way we can get to the International Space Sta tion right now is to bum a ride with the Russians," said D'Angelo, a 1972 Berkshire School graduate. He is now vice president of business development for AdamWorks of Centennial, Colo.

"The only way to do this is to turn it over to private industry and foster growth in that area," he said during a recent visit back to Pittsfield.

Founded in 2007, Adam Works is a fully integrated in-house engineering and manufacturing firm that specializes in aerospace and defense industry projects. AdamWorks is designing and manufacturing the body of this new space vehicle out of carbon composite material. It is a subcontractor for the Dream Chaser project's manager, the Sierra Nevada Corp. of Arizona, which produces satellites and propulsion systems. Sierra Nevada's executive vice president, Mark Sirangelo, was a board member of Adam Aircraft, the company that preceded AdamWorks.

The plan is to build a fleet of Dream Chasers, but Adam Works has developed only two prototypes so far.

"There's nothing flying yet," D'Angelo said. "But in the most recent round of funding, NASA's given out anywhere from $300 million to $500 million in grants for a minimum of one or possibly up to three [vehicles] for a 21-month program concluding with the first manned suborbital flight to show that it's viable.

"That's kind of where the ‘space race' is right now in terms of near-Earth orbit," he said.

First announced in 2004, the Dream Chaser is based on an idea that Sirangelo adapted from a proposal by NASA to develop a rescue vehicle for the space shuttle when that program was first launched in 1981. Due to its design, D'Angelo said the Dream Chaser is more practical than the three other projects in development by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors.

"With Sirangelo, we're more mission-driven," D'Angelo said, "so the Dream Chaser is an orbital vehicle that's de signed to go into space and dock with either the Russian space station or the Inter national Space Station."

Branson's vehicle is de signed more for commercial travel, he said.

"When you get down to it, the mission is to get supplies and transport to the space station," D'Angelo said. "Bran son's vehicle is not going to do it, and the other vehicles are capsules."

The Dream Chaser has a second local connection: The structure includes a fine copper mesh, resembling a window screen, that's woven into the body's composite fabric. The mesh allows lightning strikes to disperse throughout the entire vehicle. The mesh is tested by Lightning Technol ogies Inc., a Pittsfield-based engineering and testing company that has worked with both Adam Aircraft and AdamWorks for 10 years.

Lightning Technologies Vice President Edward J. Rupke has written articles on protecting aircraft from lightning strikes for Scientific American Magazine.

"Everywhere I go in the country, literally everybody talks about Ed Rupke," D'An gelo said. "He's the go-to guy."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow