Employee Spotlight: Meet Dream Chaser Structural Engineer, Gracie P

September 21, 2020

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser® spaceplane is a lifting body, which means the lift is created by the actual body of the vehicle. But, to quote Dream Chaser structural engineer, Gracie P, that does not mean you can count the wings out. They’re crucial to the Dream Chaser design, and Gracie’s position at SNC! 

In this Employee Spotlight, Gracie explains to us how the important analysis she did on the Dream Chaser wings led to their successful delivery to our production facility at SNC and why she wanted to work on the Dream Chaser program in the first place.

What drew you to SNC and how long have you worked for the company?
I have been working for SNC for about four and half years. I wanted to work for a company that was as passionate about space as I was.  I saw the Dream Chaser as a way I could both make a difference and be part of something that would make me proud. Dream Chaser is pushing the boundaries of composite structure capabilities and I could not be more excited to be part of a team that is bettering the space industry through passion and innovation.

You are structural engineer- what does that position entail and what’s a day in the life like?
A structural engineer on the Dream Chaser program is part of the vehicle design team. We are the ones who design and analyze the main body of the vehicle and all of the attachments that hold the various subsystems, like propulsion and electrical equipment, to Dream Chaser. Every day we are expected to think critically and come up with innovate solutions to complex problems that push us towards our launch goal.

I’m told you’ve performed the majority of the stress analysis of the wings for the Dream Chaser. Can you explain what that testing determined and why it’s so crucial to Dream Chaser missions?
Dream Chaser is a lifting body which means that the actual body of the vehicle provides much of the required lift, whereas on a standard aircraft, you would expect the wings to do the lifting.  That does not, however, mean that you can count the Dream Chaser wings out.  The design and analysis of the wings proved to be a decisively complex technical problem. Developing the loading criteria for the wings resulted in many iterations in the analysis to prove the wings could withstand the extreme conditions from orbital re-entry. As a result, the wings have some of the thickest composite on Dream Chaser. The wing skins are optimized for weight and each section was sized based off of analysis that I performed, with the thickest sections being at the root of the wing, while the tip is relatively thin. All of the analysis that I completed culminated in the completion of the composite co-bonded wings being delivered to our production facilities in Louisville, CO.

Why is space exploration so important to you?
Space is important to me because it pushes the boundaries of what we think is possible. Space gives people something to hope for and is endless in its possibilities. There will always be something to explore in space, something to push for. Consequently, we will continue to develop new and innovative ways to get to where we have never been before.  This is something that I will always want to be a part of.

If you could travel to space with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I would want to go to space with the women who paved the way for me to have the career that I have today.  Many of those women were never able to see their vision become a reality and I would want to share the excitement of space exploration with them.  One of those women would be Patsy Mink. She introduced Title IX, which prevents a person from being excluded from education programs or receiving federal financial assistance based on their sex. Two other women who I’d like to share the trip with are Amelia Earhart, who began to give normalcy to women in aviation, and Katherine Johnson, who made the Apollo missions a success through her mathematical brilliance.


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