While much of the country was quarantined this summer, Goldendale’s Nadia Smith was getting an out-of-this-world experience, working hands-on each day on the new Tenacity Dream Chaser® spaceplane.

Smith was hired as an Operations Manufacturing Technical Intern working in the Space Systems group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) in Louisville, Colorado, not far from Denver.

Known as America’s Spaceplane®, the Dream Chaser spaceplane is a reusable, multi-mission space utility vehicle. It is capable of transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit and is the only commercial, lifting-body vehicle capable of a runway landing. Under a NASA contract, it will perform cargo delivery and disposal services to and from the International Space Station on at least six NASA missions.

All Dream Chaser CRS-2 cargo missions are planned to land at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.  The Shooting Star® cargo module is a 15-foot attachment to Dream Chaser that provides extra storage for payloads, flexible mission options and facilitates cargo disposal upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

“It still doesn’t seem real, but I’ve been inside both the Shooting Star cargo module, and the UDC (uncrewed Dream Chaser) Tenacity®,” said Smith.

Last October, Smith talked to SNC recruiters during the Colorado School of Mines career fair, and then got interviews for both mechanical engineering and manufacturing engineering internships. The manufacturing interview happened to be first, and SNC called to offer her the job on the morning of her mechanical interview, which she immediately accepted.

As the intern, Smith worked with her mentor to review engineering designs to ensure manufacturability, design the ground support equipment tooling packages required to build the vehicle, write the work instructions for the technicians to follow during build and support the build on the manufacturing floor, and resolve unexpected issues that occur during production.

“I was able to put on gloves and work on some of the parts on a vehicle that’s going to go into space,” said Smith. “By the time I was done this summer, I was able to sign off and see those parts installed.”

The module Smith worked on was actually the third of its kind, with two testing articles to help with design and flight-operation verification.

The first one, the Engineering Test Article, has gone through a series of ground and airborne tests. These include tow tests to verify braking systems of the vehicle, and captive carry and free flight tests, where the vehicle was lifted by a Columbia Chinook helicopter, and then released to verify flight control patterns and collect data. It now resides in the lobby of SNC’s Louisville offices.

The second one, the Pressure Test Article, was taken to Florida in June where engineers will continue to use it to verify between-flight operations. The article is similar to the actual pressurized cabin and has been used to validate that the UDC can withstand demands from repeated launches and returns from space.

Smith admits to being a big fan of the movie “Hidden Figures,” about the women who worked as mathematicians and engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1950s, during the space race. In the movie, there is a scene where one of the women gets her heel caught in the metal grating seconds before a capsule pressure test.

“My first day on the job, I was up on the platforms looking at the aft end of the vehicle, and as I started down, my heel got caught in the grates,” said Smith. “My mentor kneed me in the back as I was having a flashback to that scene in the movie, and I haven’t worn heels to work since.”

Smith, currently a senior at Colorado School of Mines, and a captain of the collegiate swim team, says she would like to see Dream Chaser through to launch, whether that is in the Space Systems group, or a different department. She will continue to work for SNC part-time through the school year.

“I do have a couple of incredible job offers from SNC right now, for when I graduate in May,” said Smith. “This was an amazing experience, and I’d like to spend a couple of years getting more experience and learning more about the company. I know I want to stay in the aerospace field.”

If Smith stays with SNC, she may get the chance. In May, NASA selected SNC to lead development of the crew module for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program for the Artemis mission to the moon, and recently awarded SNC multiple contracts to supply critical hardware for the Mars 2020 mission as well.

“The best part of my internship this summer was knowing that the project is making such a difference in space exploration, and getting to work on it with people I really like, and really admire,” said Smith.

—Jennifer Smith