Sierra Space to start astronaut training program

PASADENA, Calif. — Sierra Space is creating an astronaut training program led by a company executive and former NASA astronaut as another step in developing a crewed version of its Dream Chaser vehicle and a commercial space station.

The company announced June 14 it was opening a commercial human spaceflight training center and astronaut training academy at its offices at the Kennedy Space Center. Janet Kavandi, a former NASA astronaut and president of Sierra Space, will lead the center.

“The commercialization of space, starting with low Earth orbit, will require an innovative new approach to the selection, training and preparation of the large numbers of women and men that we will need to live and work in space,” Tom Vice, chief executive of Sierra Space, said in a statement. “Janet has an unequaled level of expertise and experience that uniquely qualifies her for this one-of-a-kind role.”

Kavandi, a former NASA astronaut, flew on three shuttle missions and served as deputy chief of the astronaut office and flight crew operations director. She later was director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center before joining Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) in 2019. SNC spun off Sierra Space as a standalone company in 2021.

The center will train three types of astronauts. One will be professional astronauts analogous to NASA astronauts who will operate the Orbital Reef commercial space station that Sierra Space is partnering with Blue Origin and others to develop. A second type of astronauts will be “specialists” who receive training to do research and other work on the station. A third is “experiential” astronauts, akin to space tourists.

The professional astronauts would undergo training for 12 to 18 months, Kavandi said in a Q&A distributed by the company. Specialists would need three to six months while experiential astronauts would require “more modest training,” she said.

Sierra Space expects to start selecting astronauts for training in 2023, and is currently establishing a medical advisory board to support that selection process. The first class of astronauts will start training in early 2024. “This keeps us on track to start flying astronauts by 2026, supporting the start of Orbital Reef construction,” Kavandi said.

In addition to its work on Orbital Reef, Sierra Space is working on a crewed version of its Dream Chaser vehicle. The company said in the announcement of its astronaut training center that the crewed Dream Chaser passed a systems requirements review earlier in the month, with a first flight scheduled for 2026.

Kavandi said Sierra Space is still working on its astronaut selection strategy, but said the company planned to pick some of its employees for training. “Every Monday, we have orientation for new hires, and I make it clear whenever I speak to new team members that we will be taking at least some people from within the company to help us staff on-orbit destinations.”

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