NASA’s space shuttles used to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but now a new, crew-less aircraft will be taking their place on the runway.
It’s called the Dream Chaser, and it just completed a major milestone in its development. Sierra Nevada Space Systems—the plane’s creator—conducted a successful test flight on Saturday. In the coming years, Dream Chaser will be tasked with carrying cargo up to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program. The test flight was held at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
Here’s Kenneth Chang, reporting for The New York Times:
A helicopter lifted Dream Chaser more than 2.3 miles off the ground, then dropped it. Over the course of one minute, the craft accelerated to 330 miles per hour, made a couple of turns and glided 10 miles to a runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It touched down at a speed of 191 miles per hour, rolling 4,200 feet before coming to a stop.
“The vehicle is in perfect shape, no issues,” Mark N. Sirangelo, the head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, the maker of the Dream Chaser, said in an interview.
Two other companies—SpaceX and Orbital ATK—already have contracts with NASA to send supplies up to the ISS. Sierra Nevada Space Systems is a third; it was awarded a contract with NASA last year and is scheduled to begin deliveries around 2020. Of the three, Dream Chaser is unique in that it launches atop a rocket and then glides back down to Earth after re-entry, landing horizontally on a runway.
Sierra Nevada Space Systems had originally intended for Dream Chaser to be a manned flight, so it’s still considering that as an option for the future. In the meantime, data from this test flight will help refine the vehicle before NASA sends it on its way.