Spacecraft builder Sierra Nevada Corporation completed a critical flight test of its Dream Chaser orbital vehicle on Saturday, moving a step closer to supplying the International Space Station.
Launched unpowered from a Chinook helicopter above the California desert, Dream Chaser flew autonomously on a planned path before landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
Dream Chaser proved "its atmospheric flight performance along with its return and landing capability," Mark Sirangelo, a vice president at SNC, said in a statement. "The Dream Chaser flight test demonstrated excellent performance of the spacecraft's aerodynamic design and the data shows that we are firmly on the path for safe, reliable orbital flight."
Sirangelo told reporters on a conference call that the free flight test version of the aircraft "is a full-scale version of what we will fly to orbit." When asked about plans for the manned variant of the craft, Sirangelo said the current cargo program's testing "makes those other options more viable."
Former NASA astronaut and SNC senior director Steve Lindsey said on the call that the test included not only orbital vehicle designs and processes, but also specific orbital vehicle equipment.
"We flew a major subpiece of the of the orbital craft's software," Lindsey said. "We wanted to be able to do elements of what will be the orbital flight system."
The spacecraft "rolled out 4,200 feet" on the landing, according to Lindsey. While he says the flight data is preliminary, Lindsey was very optimistic about the future landing capabilities of Dream Chaser, which he expects will roll out a little farther than the flight test.
"In the future we believe Dream Chaser will land anywhere a 737 jet can land," Lindsey said.
NASA selected Dream Chaser in January 2016 to fulfill six refueling missions to the ISS through 2024, with its first flight expected in three years. Released from 12,400 feet altitude, SNC says Dream Chaser demonstrated "highly important landing attributes" that are critical to NASA's mission.
"This spacecraft is the future and has the ability to change the way humans interact with space," SNC CEO Fatih Ozmen said.
The orbital vehicle is designed to make runway landings, much like the retired space shuttles, and has been undergoing testing at the Armstrong Flight Research Center since January.