Engineering thinking is the most important tool in the engineer’s toolkit. Chris Bigler, structural design engineer III at Sierra Space, solved an engineering challenge on the Dream Chaser space vehicle by using a cup and a backpack to begin the prototyping process.

The Dream Chaser’s forward separation barrier was first implemented due to a requirement to not allow anything to exit the uncrewed spaceplane after cargo module separation. It had to be installed and stowed by a single crew member without the need for any tools. A drawstring is pulled to deploy the forward separation barrier and it keeps all articles inside the cargo module.

“After playing with some ideas, I realized that I was given a drawstring backpack for onboarding at Sierra Space,” Bigler told Design News. “I cut it apart, grabbed a cup from the office kitchen and stapled a portion of the fabric into the front to approximate the conic shape of the cargo module and what the barrier could look like.” After an initial proof of concept, Bigler went to work making a full-scale mockup test stand to iterate designs.”

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The final design for the forward separation barrier was made from a single continuous strip of Nomex fabric that is woven similar to RipStop fabric. The goal is to prevent anything from escaping or cutting through. It can stow inside of itself using a Velcro product that is space rated. “We now use the mockup as the trainer for astronauts, that will potentially be aboard the ISS when Dream Chaser arrives for its first mission in 2024,” said Bigler.

Early Engineering Beginnings

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Bigler showed signs of engineering prowess when quite young. “I took apart everything, things that was broken and things that weren’t broken,” said Bigler. “I grew up with a dad who worked at Lockheed Martin. I went to site visits with him so I could experience engineering, and when I had choices of classes, engineering classes were the most fun. I like solving problems. Spatial thinking came easy for me.

After learning CAD in high school, Bigler went on to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.

As for seeking engineering solutions using common objects, it comes natural for Bigler. He notes that he often seeks solutions to engineering challenges by utilizing off-the-shelf products and materials. “It’s good to go with off-the-shelf products,” said Bigler. “If you can take something that already exists for part of your solution, you get to spend your time focusing on the harder problems. Innovation is great but plagiarism is cheap. It’s best to be simple. The best designs have the simplest solutions in most cases.”

Getting Right with NASA

Sierra Space recently achieved a major milestone in the development of the first commercial space station. The first Ultimate Burst Pressure test of our full-scale LIFE structure at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center exceeded NASA’s recommended x4 safety levels by 27%. The article was one third the volume of the International Space Station and will be an integral part of future commercial space destinations.

Here’s some background on the Dream Chaser:


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