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Fuzzy dice on Dream Chaser
In a nod to test-pilot tradition, two fuzzy dice hang on the flight deck of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s pilotless Dream Chaser prototype space plane. (NASA Photo via SNC)

Last weekend’s drop test of a prototype Dream Chaser space plane went so well that the next flight might be the one that goes all the way to the International Space Station in 2020, Sierra Nevada Corp. executives said today.

The road ahead depends on the performance data that was gained when the engineering test article glided down to a picture-perfect runway landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Saturday.

But if the results are as positive as preliminary readouts suggest, the 30-foot-long plane can go into retirement after just two free-flying tests, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area. “This vehicle will not need further flight tests,” he told reporters.

The data from the test will be used to fine-tune the design for a space-worthy version of the Dream Chaser, which is due to take shape over the next couple of years.

Steve Lindsey, vice president of SNC’s Space Exploration Systems, said the orbital vehicle would undergo extensive ground testing as well as computerized checkouts. Some tests would take place inside a vacuum chamber. But the first flight would come when it carries cargo to the space station.

“We do flight testing based on specific test objectives we need to design, build and certify the Dream Chaser Cargo System — future atmospheric flight testing will not provide us any additional information if we’ve accomplished all of our test objectives on this flight (based on our data analysis),” Lindsey explained in an email sent to GeekWire.  “Space shuttle used a similar process and rationale; they went straight from glide testing to orbital spaceflight.”

Today SNC shared a video of Saturday’s test flight as well as its basic statistics: The uncrewed plane was lofted 12,400 feet into the air by a Columbia 234-UT helicopter, then released at 9:51 a.m. PT Saturday for a gliding flight that reached a maximum speed of 330 mph. The prototype flew for a minute, touched down on the runway traveling at 191 mph, and rolled for 4,200 feet before braking to a stop.

Sirangelo said the performance “was what we wanted it to be.”

He noted that the test took place 40 years after NASA’s atmospheric-test shuttle prototype, the Enterprise, flew freely for the first time at Edwards. “We’ve picked up the torch for winged vehicles, certainly continuing the long tradition of Edwards flight-testing unique vehicles,” Sirangelo said.

The weekend flight follows up on an initial drop test that took place at Edwards back in 2013. At the end of that test, the landing gear malfunctioned, and the plane slid off the runway and crashed.

SNC took advantage of the down time to upgrade some of the systems aboard the engineering test vehicle to reflect more of the design for the orbital vehicle. Lindsey said the upgrades included the avionics and flight software, as well as data sensors and thermal protection tiles.

Lindsey, a five-time shuttle astronaut who joined SNC in 2011, said he experienced a flashback as he watched the autonomous Dream Chaser descend to a landing on Saturday.

“I felt like I kinda knew what it was feeling,” he said.

Watching the descent with his team was “the longest minute of our lives … but it sure was rewarding at the end when it touched down safely,” Lindsey said.

Sirangelo joked that Lindsey “really wanted to get in and fly it himself.”

SNC is sharing its data with NASA, which will judge whether the results satisfy its requirements for a final payment under the terms of a five-year-old contract for development of a crewed vehicle.

Dream Chaser wasn’t selected for further work on the crewed version, but the uncrewed version is due to join SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule as a cargo carrier. NASA has contracted for at least six round-trip cargo shipments between 2019 and 2024.

Sirangelo said at least two orbital-class Dream Chasers would be built to service NASA’s needs as well as those of other customers, including the United Nations. The first flight would launch from Florida, atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, and land back at the runway once used by space shuttles.

SNC still holds out hope that a different variant of the Dream Chaser could eventually carry astronauts as well. If the company ever needs to conduct tests for a crew-capable space plane, the engineering test article would almost certainly be called out of retirement.

“That’s why we’re going to keep this vehicle in flyable storage,” Lindsey said.

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