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Dream Chaser takes to the air in captive-carry test

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Aug 26, 2013, 23:00 UTC

Sen—The Dream Chaser spacecraft prototype was successfully towed through the air on August 22 during a captive-carry test undertaken by its creator, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Dream Chaser is one of three concepts currently funded by NASA as part of its intention to outsource the ferrying of crew transport to the space station to commercial spaceflight companies. With the success of this second carry-flight behind the company, SNC can now prepare for forthcoming free flight tests. Those should take place in the northern hemisphere's fall. The first captive carry flight took place in May 2012 as reported by Sen.

"Today is the first time we have flown a fully functional Dream Chaser flight vehicle, and we are very pleased with the results," stated Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC's Space Systems.

"We have worked closely with NASA, Dryden and the Air Force to reach this important milestone in our flight test program. We look forward to seeing Dream Chaser land on the same runway as the space shuttle orbiters once did as we move forward in the development of the next-generation crew transportation vehicle."

Dream Chaser during a captive carry test in August 2013 conducted by Sierra Nevada Corp. Credit: NASA

The test, which lasted two hours, took place at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California. A helicopter took the prototype spacecraft aloft to an altitude of 3,780 metres (12,400 feet). Dream Chaser was then flown a lateral distance of almost five kilometres, following a similar path to what it will trace when it is flying on its own.

The test aimed to put SNC's flight computer, controls, navigation, landing gear, nose skid and guidance through their paces. "Data obtained from the test will provide SNC valuable information about the Dream Chaser hardware and ground operations," NASA stated.

This is the latest milestone for the spacecraft prototype, which passed a major safety review in May and has also been undergoing runway braking tests at Dryden.  

Dream Chaser's funding arose out of a desire by NASA to bring American astronauts into space from U.S. soil. Since the shuttle program retired in 2011, the agency has been using Russian Soyuz spacecraft to accomplish that task. 

The agency is funding three concepts, which are all so far meeting the needed milestones on the road to launch. Funding, however, is somewhat difficult to predict given NASA (like other American departments) is grappling with ongoing annual budget discussions and the effects of sequestration, or mandated spending reductions put in place to deal with the U.S. budgetary deficit and debt.

Dream Chaser's concept calls for the spacecraft to bring up to seven astronauts into space. The spacecraft would be fitted for and launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and, similar to the space shuttle, would land on a runway once it returns to Earth. This is the only one of the three funded concepts that does not make an ocean landing after mission completion.

Also funded for human transport is SpaceX's Dragon spaceraft, which has already run two successful cargo missions to the International Space Station. The human-rated version of the spacecraft will be substantially different, with space for seating as well as life support systems, among other changes.

Boeing's CST-100 (Crew Space Transportation-100) is the final concept being funded. The blue-lit interior of the spacecraft was just shown off to media in June as astronauts did fit checks inside of the spacecraft.