On Saturday, the Dream Chaser space plane completed a milestone in its development. During an “approach and landing” test, the spacecraft was dropped from a helicopter to fly back to a landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The company behind the space plane confirmed the successful test in a tweet on Saturday night, saying, “The Dream Chaser had a beautiful flight and landing!”
The company released no immediate, additional details about the test. (It promised more information Monday). But Saturday’s flight clearly marks a significant milestone for Dream Chaser and its manufacturer, Sierra Nevada Corporation. During the last free-flight test in 2013, the spacecraft had a problem with the deployment of its left landing gear, causing the plane to skid off the runway and leading to minor damage.
At the time, Dream Chaser was competing with Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as entrants in NASA’s commercial crew competition. A year later, NASA cut down to two providers, leaving the Dream Chaser vehicle out of the running. As Sierra Nevada’s bid was substantially less costly than that of Boeing, the company protested. NASA’s response was that it did not believe the Dream Chaser could be completed by the 2017 deadline.
However, Sierra Nevada did not give up on its spacecraft, which resembles a small version of the iconic space shuttle in both form and function. The reusable, winged vehicle launches on a rocket and glides to a landing on a runway after returning from space. After losing out on a contract to carry crew to the station, its developers wondered, might Dream Chaser instead join the ranks of commercial cargo deliverers?
The answer was “yes.” When NASA announced a new round of multi-billion dollar contracts in 2016 to supply the International Space Station with food, water, and scientific research from late 2019 through 2024, the Dream Chaser was among the chosen providers. NASA liked the vehicle’s flexibility, as it offers a less dynamic return to Earth than a capsule. Scientists said experiments, such as protein crystals grown in space, would likely survive such a return. NASA would also be able to retrieve experiments from Dream Chaser within a few hours of landing.
During the last two years, Sierra Nevada has worked to reconfigure the inside of Dream Chaser to accommodate cargo only—the crew and cargo versions have 85-percent commonality—and has conducted a couple of “captive carry” tests. However, it hadn’t taken the step toward a critical free-flight test. Now it has. With this milestone behind it, the company now appears to be on track toward a possible 2019 launch of Dream Chaser into space, where the vehicle has never gone before.