It looked like the 1970s all over again.
Last Saturday at Edwards Air Force Base in California, a test model of a winged spacecraft landed on a runway after being dropped from an altitude of more than 12,000 feet—similar to what NASA’s Enterprise test vehicle did 40 years ago, when the space shuttle was still in development.
Executives at Sierra Nevada, who built the new Dream Chaser, say the critical drop test exceeded their expectations. In fact, they don’t anticipate that they’ll need any more atmospheric tests before their new mini-shuttle launches into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket in 2020. Sierra Nevada has a contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station, then return for a runway landing at mission’s end, something we haven’t seen (other than the Pentagon’s secret X-37 program) since NASA’s shuttles retired in 2011.
Steve Lindsey, the company’s Senior Director and a former NASA astronaut, admitted to a sense of nostalgia watching Saturday’s approach and landing test, which he said “looked very, very familiar.”
But the new vehicle differs in several key ways from the one Lindsey rode to orbit five times:
It’s smaller. The Dream Chaser is 30 feet long, about a quarter of the space shuttle’s size. It can carry about 12,000 pounds of cargo to orbit, less than a quarter of what the shuttle could lift.
There’s nobody onboard. Sierra Nevada hasn’t ruled out a future, piloted version of the Dream Chaser, but this one is strictly autonomous. During Saturday’s drop test, the vehicle used onboard software to execute a few simple maneuvers on the way down, then landed at 191 mph and rolled to a gentle stop.
It’s not more capable, but in some ways it’s more flexible. The first cargo launch for NASA will be on an Atlas V, but the company is exploring the use of other rockets in the future. “We designed the vehicle to be launch agnostic,” Sierra Nevada Vice President Mark Sirangelo said during a press conference yesterday. And because the Dream Chaser doesn’t need much runway (yesterday’s rollout was a mere 4,200 feet, although the space-qualified version will be slightly heavier and therefore will need a longer runway) it will be able to land “basically anywhere you could land a 737,” said Lindsey.
It will be more international. Sierra Nevada’s first customer is NASA, but the new mini-shuttle will be for rent to anyone, including other governments’ space agencies. “We see our market being around the world,” said Sirangelo. In cooperation with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, the company is looking to carry experiments into orbit for UN member states, particularly those that don’t have their own space program. The two-week orbital science flight is envisioned for 2021.
Sierra Nevada still has a long way to go from this successful atmospheric drop test to a full orbital mission, which involves rendezvous and docking with the space station, then a descent through the entire atmosphere. But for now, they can check “landing” off their to-do list. You can watch the entire 60-second flight below.