LOS ANGELES (AP) — A test version of the Dream Chaser, a reusable spacecraft that resembles a small space shuttle, made a successful free flight and landing in California after being hoisted by helicopter high over the Mojave Desert, officials of Sierra Nevada Corp. said Monday.
The flight Saturday moved the program closer to achieving unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station and back to Earth under a NASA contract, possibly as soon as 2020.
Slung below the helicopter on a 200-foot (61-meter) tether, the full-scale atmospheric test version of the Dream Chaser was hoisted to an altitude of 12,324 feet (3,756 meters) and released.
The craft then made a completely autonomous descent and landing, rolling out about 4,200 feet on an Edwards Air Force Base runway in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
The free flight lasted 60 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 330 mph (531 kph) and touching down at the targeted spot on the runway at a speed of 191 mph (307 kph). In the middle of the flight it performed a maneuver, turning left and right and then coming back to the centerline.
"It is a good day for us," Mark Sirangelo, a Sierra Nevada Corp. executive, said in a conference call with reporters. "It is in our mind a signal that our program has moved another step closer to operations and orbital flight."
Officials were confident that they had all the data needed from the flight but the vehicle would be capable of making another drop test if needed, said Sirangelo, who likened it to the shuttle Enterprise, which was used for test flights in the atmosphere before the other shuttles actually went into orbit.
The Dream Chaser has been in development by the Sparks, Nevada, company for more than 10 years. It has been significantly upgraded since its previous free flight in 2013 which ended with a mishap when its left main landing gear did not deploy properly.
It is 30 feet (9 meters) long, about one quarter the length of a space shuttle and is a type of craft known as a "lifting body" in which aerodynamic lift is generated by its shape rather than traditional wings. Tail fins angling upward at the rear provide control.
NASA proved the lifting body concept by flying a series of wingless aircraft at Edwards in the 1960s and '70s.
Orbital flights will be made by a space-capable version of the Dream Chaser that will be launched atop a booster rocket.
Sierra Nevada has selected United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 to launch the first two Dream Chaser cargo missions, which are scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2020 and 2021. Those missions will land at Kennedy Space Center.