Des Moines Register: Dream-chasing Engineer Works on New Space Shuttle

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
By Mary Stegmeir
Des Moines Register

As a child, Cassie Kloberdanz looked to the heavens and pondered what lay beyond Earth’s orbit.

Magic was in the twinkling stars and in the glimpses of other planets she’d spy through her father’s hunting binoculars.

That sense of wonder continues to inspire the West Des Moines native as she tackles a project that has the potential to reinvigorate the nation’s space program. Kloberdanz is one of 50 Sierra Nevada Corp. engineers working on the Dream Chaser, a craft designed to take the place of NASA’s recently retired space shuttle.

“Every now and again, someone will ask: ‘Who builds rockets?’ And we all say: ‘We do,’ ” said Kloberdanz, 31. “It’s super-dorky, but it reminds us that although this is difficult, highly technical work, we fundamentally are doing something that no one else has ever done before, and that’s really exciting.”

Sierra Nevada, whose space division is in Louisville, Colo., is one of four private companies vying for a chance to build a ship that will transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Other corporations still in the running are a Houston-based division of Boeing Co.; Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; and SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. All have received federal grants to assist with design and development. NASA officials have indicated they will select two of the vehicles to carry crew and cargo starting in 2014 or 2015.

“NASA has always used commercial contractors, but this is the first time they’ve given money to a company and said: ‘OK, how do you propose we get our astronauts up there?’ ” said Kloberdanz, a 1998 Valley High School graduate whose parents, Mark and Nan Kloberdanz, still live in West Des Moines. “They’ve basically said: ‘Here’s the problem, give it your best shot.’ ”

The Dream Chaser resembles the shuttle, and is roughly 1/40th the size of the retired craft. Its design is based on a NASA prototype of a 1960s Russian spacecraft. The piloted vehicle will carry up to seven astronauts and cargo. It’s powered by Sierra Nevada’s own hybrid rocket motor technology and is equipped for runway landings.

Kloberdanz, a University of Iowa graduate, is a systems engineer on the project, rubbing elbows with team leaders including retired astronaut Jim Voss on a daily basis. Her duties require her to test the safety and sustainability of the craft, and ensure the Dream Chaser will be compatible with NASA technologies.

Before joining Sierra Nevada, Kloberdanz worked as a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Fla., and in media and public relations with SpaceX.

Those credentials undoubtedly helped her land a position on the Dream Chaser project, said P. Barry Butler, with the University of Iowa. But the mechanical and industrial engineering professor said he thinks Kloberdanz’s enthusiasm and inquisitive mind are probably the greatest assets she brings to the team.

Kloberdanz’s love affair with outer space began in elementary school, when she convinced her parents to send her to Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. At the University of Iowa, she made phone calls and convinced NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville, to renew a cooperative education agreement it had once held with the the U of I. As a result, Kloberdanz spent 2½ years alternating semesters studying in Iowa and Alabama, where she had hands-on experience working on the space shuttle’s main engine systems.

The same drive that spurred Kloberdanz to talk her way into a NASA job as an undergraduate will come in handy on the Dream Chaser project, said Butler, one the engineer’s former professors.

“For the companies involved, this is a very exciting opportunity, but it’s also quite challenging,” he said. “There’s a lot of risk and a lot of uncertainty. You need people like Cassie who can keep the team going, keep the project moving ahead, even when there are hurdles.”

The Dream Chaser has already achieved several major milestones. A miniature replica of the ship passed a flight test, and its engine system has earned NASA’s approval. More recently, a full-size model fared well in load tests.

The team — which has also partnered with several universities, other aerospace companies and NASA engineers on the project — hopes to complete atmosphere drop tests next year.

“We operate under the philosophy of build a little, test a little,” said Kloberdanz, who makes it back to Iowa three to four times a year. “We feel a real sense of competition with the other companies, but at the same time there’s camaraderie. We’re all taking on this huge project, and we’re all doing it for the same reasons.”

When the shuttle program ended this summer,the United States’ direct access to the International Space Station also ceased. Until a new transportation system is built, NASA employees wanting to visit the orbiting laboratory will have to spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy seats on other nations’ spaceships, Kloberdanz said. U.S. researchers are currently using the space station to conduct experiments in cancer treatment, vaccine development and air purification.

A commercial spacecraft, like the Dream Chaser, would allow the nation’s top thinkers to continue that work, while freeing up resources and time for NASA’s rocket scientists to write the next chapter in U.S. space travel, Kloberdanz said.

“Are we going to go to an asteroid? Are we going back to the moon? Are we going to try to have a sustained, habitable environment in space?” she asked. “Having a commercial company work on replacing the shuttle opens up the potential for NASA to do so much more.”

The engineer’s friends and family in Iowa are also excited to see what the future brings — for the Dream Chaser, and for Kloberdanz.

“Cassie’s so excited about her work, and even if we don’t understand everything she’s doing, it’s exciting for us, too,” said her mother, Nan Kloberdanz. “The thing that’s great about Cassie is that she’s just an everyday girl who followed her passion. She’s one of the lucky ones. She’s doing something that she absolutely loves.”