It was surely one of those moments where NASA could hardly wait to tear off the shrink wrap. Sierra Nevada Corp.’s privately constructed Dream Chaser spacecraft engineering test article arrived at the Dryden Flight Research Center last week — wrapped in plastic for shipping protection — ahead of some flight and runway tests in the next few months.
“Tests at Dryden will include tow, captive-carry and free-flight tests of the Dream Chaser. A truck will tow the craft down a runway to validate performance of the nose strut, brakes and tires,” NASA stated.
“The captive-carry flights will further examine the loads it will encounter during flight as it is carried by an Erickson Skycrane helicopter. The free flight later this year will test Dream Chaser’s aerodynamics through landing.”
The ultimate goal is to get the United States bringing its own astronauts into space again.
Sierra Nevada, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the Boeing Co. are all receiving NASA funding under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative that is intended to restart flights from American soil into low-Earth orbit.
For Sierra Nevada, the company aims to launch its mini shuttle aboard an Atlas V rocket and then, like the shuttle, come back to Earth on a runway. SpaceX and Boeing are taking a different path — making spacecraft capable of launching on the Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (respectively) and then coming home under a parachute.
There’s still some questions about when the program will start, though. In media reports, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said funding threats for NASA’s 2014 request are imperiling the current commercial crew target of 2017.
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and three others recently took part in approach and landing simulations of the Dream Chaser at Langley Research Center in Hampton. Check out the video below.