Sierra Nevada Corp. said its Dream Chaser prototype space plane glided to a successful landing in California’s Mojave Desert today after being dropped from a helicopter.
Today’s uncrewed test at Edwards Air Force Base marked the first time the Dream Chaser flew freely through the air since 2013. That earlier flight was also judged successful, but the landing gear failed to deploy correctly, which caused the winged vehicle to skid off the runway and crash.
Over the years that followed, SNC repaired and upgraded the aerodynamic test vehicle in preparation for a new series of flight tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, within Edwards’ property.
During a captive-carry test in August, the Dream Chaser was flown through the air while tethered to a helicopter for nearly two hours.
Like the test in 2013, today’s approach and landing test involved dropping the Dream Chaser from a helicopter, then having it glide autonomously to an airplane-like landing on Edwards’ runway.
In a tweet, SNC said the free-flying test was successful. “The Dream Chaser had a beautiful flight and landing!” the company said.
SNC is proud to announce the Dream Chaser® spacecraft had a successful free-flight test today @EdwardsAFB, with support of @NASAArmstrong. The Dream Chaser had a beautiful flight and landing! pic.twitter.com/lAn0n7FPsg
— Sierra Nevada Corp (@SierraNevCorp) November 12, 2017
If NASA accepts the results of the flight test, that would mark the final milestone for a $227.5 million contract awarded to SNC in 2012 as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program, or CCICap.
Last year, SNC won a different contract to develop the Dream Chaser as an uncrewed vehicle for transferring cargo to and from the International Space Station. If the company sticks to its schedule, a space-worthy version of the Dream Chaser could start making deliveries in 2020.
SNC also has an agreement with the United Nations to fly international payloads into orbit and back on the Dream Chaser.
The 30-foot-long Dream Chaser is based on a 1990s-era NASA lifting-body design known as the HL-20, and has a look reminiscent of NASA’s space shuttles. The crewed version could carry seven astronauts and their gear, and the uncrewed version could lift 12,000 pounds of cargo.
Both versions are designed to be sent into orbit atop a rocket such as United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 or the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5, and glide back to Earth for a runway landing.