Dream Chaser has rough landing in test flight, but firm hails ‘successful day’ for space plane

For the would-be spaceship named the Dream Chaser, everything on the first flight of a prototype went perfectly — until the craft touched down, toppled on its side, skidded off the runway and wound up in the sand of the Mojave Desert.

The unmanned test flight, conducted in hushed conditions Saturday at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, came to an inelegant end after the left landing gear failed to deploy properly.

But the creator of the space plane, Sierra Nevada Corp., which is hoping to win a NASA contract to carry astronauts to the international space station, found much to celebrate despite the rough landing. The vehicle, dropped by a helicopter at 12,500 feet, flew autonomously in a steep dive, pulled up perfectly and glided to the center line of the runway, the whole flight precisely by the book until the very end, Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s space unit, said in a teleconference Tuesday.

“We had a very successful day with an unfortunate anomaly at the end of the day on one of the landing gears,” Sirangelo said. Putting an even more positive spin on the floppy landing, he said, “Even the final ending, which did not roll out perfectly, provided some very valuable data for us as well.”

Sierra Nevada has put out a video showing the flight, but the video cuts off just as the Dream Chaser is landing. Sirangelo said the company is unlikely to produce additional footage while the “anomaly” is being investigated.

A privately owned prototype space plane aces its debut test flight in California but runs into landing problems on the runway. (Reuters)

Sierra Nevada is perhaps the underdog in the competition to win the NASA contract to haul astronauts to the international space station. The company spent the good part of a decade developing the Dream Chaser, which looks like a miniature space shuttle. It would be launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Like the shuttle, it is designed to glide back to Earth and land on a runway. It has not yet flown in space; the first such mission, unmanned, will probably take place in 2016, Sirangelo said.

NASA’s “commercial crew” program has offered subsidies to Sierra Nevada along the way. According to NASA, Sierra Nevada had received $229.1 million in payments from NASA through the end of September under a series of agreements and contracts.

Among the companies that have also received commercial crew subsidies are SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX, founded by tycoon Elon Musk, is taking cargo to the space station and hopes to add astronauts to its manifest in the near future, and Musk is vocal about his desire to send people to Mars. Boeing is an aerospace giant for which human spaceflight is essentially a side business.

Sierra Nevada, however, is more narrowly focused.

“We’re not trying to land on the moon or Mars,” Sirangelo said earlier this year. “That’s not our mission. Our mission is to take over low Earth orbit so that NASA can go on and do something else.”

Next year, NASA is expected to do a “down-select” in its commercial crew program and will presumably pick two companies to move forward. Officials have said they do not want to rely on a single provider. Congress in recent years has not funded the commercial crew program at the level requested by the administration. The goal is to have commercial rides to space by 2017, although NASA officials have said that could slip without full funding of the program.

The space shuttle was retired in 2011 after three decades of flight. Currently, the only way U.S. astronauts can reach the space station, or return to Earth, is via Russian rockets.

SpaceX and Boeing are developing crew capsules that would reenter the atmosphere the way Apollo capsules did nearly half a century ago, with the final descent slowed by parachutes. SpaceX would launch its capsule atop the company’s own rocket, the Falcon 9, while Boeing’s capsule would, like the Dream Chaser, ride atop an Atlas 5, the rocket owned by United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Sierra Nevada believes that the relatively gentle flight profile of a winged vehicle will be appealing to NASA and other space agencies seeking to bring experiments and cargo back to Earth.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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