Originally Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2013, 8:21 pm
Last Updated: Aug. 11, 2013, 10:43 pm

RI native's dreams chased into space

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By John Marx, jmarx@qconline.com

Photo: None
Dream Chaser is the United States' latest step in human spaceflight.
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Rock Island's Jeff Stebel is an industrial engineer for the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is developing Dream Chaser.

It is appropriate a home-grown dream-chaser is bringing Dream Chaser to life.

According to NASA, Dream Chaser is a crewed suborbital and orbital vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing lifting-body space plane being developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation. It carries seven and will launch vertically on an Atlas V and land horizontally on conventional runways.

Dream Chaser's mission is to provide NASA with a safe, reliable commercially operated transportation service for crew and cargo from Earth to the International Space Station and back.

Potential Dream Chaser missions include delivering crew and cargo to other orbiting facilities, or functioning as a short-term independent orbiting laboratory for other government agencies or commercial entities.

In the world of space travel, Dream Chaser is the United States' next big thing in human spaceflight.

Picture, for a moment, what it takes to bring Dream Chaser to life. ... Now you have a glimpse into the working world of Rock Island native Jeff Stebel, an industrial engineer for the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Stebel provides technical leadership support for safety and mission assurance for SNC, seeking human rating of a commercially developed spacecraft for NASA and other potential customers.

What that means, is Stebel is bright, humble about his abilities and at the forefront of human spaceflight.

"I work with about 150 of the brightest people in the world for SNC,'' said Stebel, a baseball star in his days at Rock Island High School and St. Ambrose University. "SNC has partnered with NASA on over 70 science missions and 12 trips to Mars.''

Stebel's focus with Dream Chaser is analyzing risk via system safety engineering hazard analysis, reliability failure mode and effects analysis and orbital debris assessment including coordination with NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force. He is the flight-test vehicle lead with a focus in the areas of electrical power systems and hybrid propulsion systems.

"Since the Space Shuttle Program ended, the need for next- generation safe, reliable and cost effective-human-rated spacecraft to be developed, has increased,'' said Stebel, one of life's class acts and good guys.

Dream Chaser is not Stebel's first step into the world of human spaceflight. He began his career in 2006 with Lockheed Martin, providing system safety engineering hazard analysis with the Orion Program in partnership with NASA.

Orion was NASA's latest exploration spacecraft, designed to take astronauts back to the Moon, Mars and through exploration of certain asteroids.

"I was fortunate to provide the same support on the assembly and testing of the Orion exploration flight test vehicle heat shield,'' Stebel said. "It is the largest ever made as a single piece.''

Always a standout in the classroom and on the baseball diamond, Stebel, by his own words, took time to find his path in life.

He spent two years after graduating from St. Ambrose (2001) criss-crossing the country (eight states), working odd jobs. He returned to school -- at Oregon State University -- to advance in the world in industrial engineering.

"I explored medical specialties, but OSU had research ties to NASA in the area of human systems engineering,'' said Stebel, who drives 90 minutes daily from his home in Littleton, Colo., to Louisville, Colo., just to work for SNC. " It was one of the best decisions I've made to this day because of what I learned, the people I met and the experience of living in the Northwest. When Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract as the prime contractor to build the Crew Exploration Vehicle known as Orion, I jumped at the chance to move to the mountains. When I got off the plane for the interview, I knew I was in the right place.''

Though busy, Stebel still makes his way home at least twice annually, finding time for family, Happy Joe's Pizza, Hungry Hobo, Harris Pizza and Whitey's Ice Cream. It would take days to name the many Stebel said have helped him get to where he is.

"My parents, my brother, my sister, my sophomore baseball coach Andy Gray (Rock Island) and my college baseball coaches, all provided me with love support and the knowledge if I did not get good grades there would be no sports,'' Stebel said. " I always felt I would be successful in whatever I decided to do despite what others might think, but it wouldn't be easy.

"However, I never thought in a million years that I would be working as an aerospace engineering prime contractor for NASA, leading other subcontractors in developing spacecraft for human space exploration. I think there still might be other avenues in the future that could take my life's journey down interesting paths.''

But the path -- at this time -- is amazing.

Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309-757-8388 or jmarx@qconline.com.