If you miss NASA’s space shuttles, you might like the Dream Chaser.
The compact space plane carries no crew, but will transport cargo to the International Space Station in the years ahead and conduct other missions in orbit around the Earth. On Saturday, the vehicle completed an important milestone in its development.
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.
Mr. Sirangelo said he thought no more glide tests would be needed. If NASA agrees, the very next flight of the Dream Chaser might be a return from orbit two or three years from now at the end of a mission taking cargo to and from the space station. It is to land on the same runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that the space shuttles once used.
Last year, NASA awarded Sierra Nevada a contract for at least six cargo flights.
The Dream Chaser is an autonomous, self-flying spacecraft, and this iteration will not carry any people. Saturday’s test demonstrated that the software that guides the vehicle worked as designed.
There was no problem with the landing gear, unlike the glide test four years ago when the left wheel never lowered and the Dream Chaser skidded off the runway. That mishap proved beneficial in retrospect.
“One of the cool things actually was that we proved how strong the vehicle was,” Mr. Sirangelo said. “The entire interior of the vehicle in the previous flight was undamaged.”
Sierra Nevada fixed the dings on its exterior, upgraded the landing gear and used the same vehicle for Saturday’s test.
If NASA agrees that this test was sufficient, the test vehicle will go into storage. The company will then focus on an update, already under construction, that will launch on top of an Atlas 5 rocket en route to the space station.
NASA has not yet chosen a date for that flight, but Mr. Sirangelo said that it would likely be in the second quarter of 2020.
Winged spacecraft offer some advantages over traditional capsules like the Russian Soyuz, which astronauts currently use to get to and from the space station, and the SpaceX Dragon, which is used to return experimental cargo to Earth
The ride back to Earth on Dream Chaser would be gentler, less jarring to delicate scientific payloads like protein crystals grown in experiments aboard the space station. Dream Chaser can, in principle, land at any airport that can handle a 737 jet, and the returning cargo can be unloaded much more quickly.
Sierra Nevada also hopes to use the Dream Chaser for non-NASA flights. The company has an agreement with the United Nations to carry 20 to 30 experiments from around the world to space aboard a Dream Chaser flight in 2021. Other missions could include repairing satellites in orbit and clearing out space debris.
What remains on the back burner is a people-carrying version of Dream Chaser. Sierra Nevada originally developed the spacecraft hoping to win a contract to take astronauts to the space station. SpaceX and Boeing won the NASA contracts in 2014. Sierra Nevada came in third and was left out.