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NASA’s new autonomous space shuttle just had a successful test flight

Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada Corp's spacecraft, touches down at Edwards Air Force Base on Saturday Nov. 11, 2017 after a successful test flight. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corp.)
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It only lasted a minute. And it flew from just 12,500 feet. But Saturday’s first-ever successful test flight of a miniature, new-generation space shuttle was something of a coup for the Sierra Nevada Corp., which had been waiting years to fly.

The company is under contract from NASA to fly its Dream Chaser spaceplane to the International Space Station by 2020. Unlike other spacecraft — the capsules that look like the vehicles that flew in the Apollo-era — the Dream Chaser has wings and wheels that allow it to land on a runway.

On Saturday, it was dropped from a helicopter over the Mojave Desert in California, and then glided to a runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The successful flight had no passengers on board, and the vehicle flew itself instead of being controlled remotely.

“It was a really good day. We had a full flight. We met all our goals. The vehicle landed safely, and there were absolutely no issues,” Mark Sirangelo, the head of Sierra Nevada Corp’s Space Systems Division, said in an interview.

He said the fully autonomous vehicle “flew itself from the drop to the ground through the landing.”

Along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada is under contract from NASA for as many as six cargo flights to the station. Dream Chaser, which looks like a smaller version of the Space Shuttle, would initially be launched on an Atlas V rocket. It is being designed to land on runways and then allow crews to access the materials flown back to Earth soon after landing.

The company is also developing a version of its shuttle that could carry as many as seven passengers to low Earth orbit.