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SNC Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser flight test vehicle is ready to go at the company’s Colorado spacecraft assembly facility. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.)

Sierra Nevada Corp. says its full-scale Dream Chaser test vehicle is at last ready to be sent to a NASA center in California, for a fresh round of checkouts that will culminate in a series of flights over the Mojave Desert.

The announcement comes three years after the uncrewed Dream Chaser prototype made its first free flight at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. A spaceworthy version of the shuttle-like winged craft is destined to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as soon as 2019, and eventually SNC wants to have it carry people as well.

Since the flight test in 2013, the prototype has been upgraded at SNC’s assembly facility in Colorado. Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, said the vehicle would be shipped westward by truck. It’s due to arrive at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, near Edwards, by September.

The start of Phase 2 testing will represent a milestone for the 12-year-old Dream Chaser program.

“From my aviation background, it’s a little more than a rollout,” Sirangelo told GeekWire. “It’s a vehicle that’s actually ready to fly.”

The full-featured Dream Chaser is designed to be launched into orbit in a folded-up configuration atop a booster rocket. After unfolding its wings, it would hook up with the space station to deliver cargo, and glide back down to a runway landing at the end of its mission. It looks like the space shuttle, but with a wingspan of 23 feet rather than the shuttle’s 78 feet.

This prototype isn’t capable of flying into space. Rather, it’s an atmospheric test vehicle, analogous to the 1970s-era Enterprise in NASA’s space shuttle test program. The glider will be put through a series of ground tests in California, then captive-carry flights, and eventually tests that will involve dropping the craft from a carrier aircraft in midflight.

The Phase 2 testing follows through on SNC’s requirements under a NASA Space Act agreement associated with the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, or CCP. While those tests proceed, the cargo-carrying, spaceworthy version of the Dream Chaser will be developed for a different program, known as Commercial Resupply Services 2 or CRS-2.

Sirangelo said the atmospheric tests in California will provide data about the Dream Chaser’s aerodynamics as well as the performance of its flight software and control system.

“These tests are significant for us in multiple ways, building on our previous flight test, completing a significant milestone under our CCP agreement, as well as gathering crucial data that will help complete the design of the vehicle being built for our CRS-2 contract,” he said in a news release.

The first two milestones in the CRS-2 contract, which have to do with determining the craft’s design criteria, already have been completed.

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