NASA’s next cargo delivery vehicle—a spunky little space plane that looks like it could be an offspring of the space shuttle—is getting ready to fly.

The svelte and snub nosed Dream Chaser will soon be shipped to the Mojave desert in California where it would begin a series of ground tests that would eventually culminate with a flight from an altitude of 2.5 miles high.

To get to this point, however, has been a long road for its manufacturer, the Sierra Nevada Corp. The company had originally pursued a NASA contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. But it lost out to SpaceX and Boeing, and so it then turned its attention to another contract—one to fly cargo and supplies to the station.

NASA engineers in Hampton, Va., used a wind tunnel to evaluate the design of Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spacecraft. (YouTube/NASA Kennedy)

The bid was something of a longshot, especially since the incumbents were well liked and had proven vehicles. But Sierra Nevada last year won a slice of the contract, along with incumbents Orbital ATK and SpaceX, and could begin flying by late 2019.

The victory breathed life into the program, and the company has been progressing ever since, said Mark Sirangelo, the heads of Sierra Nevada’s space systems division. He said he was especially proud that the Dream Chaser would be tested in the same area where so many other programs got off the ground, from the first test flights of the shuttle to Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier.

“We’re picking up that torch and carrying it forward,” Sirangelo said. “There’s a lot of historical meaning to us, a continuation of the long legacy of America testing advanced airplanes and leading the world in this arena.”

First, the Dream Chaser will undergo ground testing. But eventually it will be carried aloft by a heavy-lift helicopter, then let go, gliding back down to Earth to practice one the most important parts of flight: the landing.