The Other Guys

NASA needs a space taxi. The likely pick is SpaceX—but don’t count out Colorado-based Sierra Nevada.

Former astronaut Jim Voss came out of retirement to help lead the underdog effort. (University of Colorado Boulder)
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At Sierra Nevada, McMillan sets me up in the flight simulator’s commander seat, the control stick on my left. He flips a switch and suddenly Dream Chaser is pitched forward in a steep dive, doing 300 knots at 12,000 feet, with Cape Canaveral approaching fast. The spaceplane is hyper-responsive; the slightest twitch can knock it off axis. McMillan, who is sitting at a computer station a few yards away, is talking to me through a headset. He warns, “She’ll roll quickly, like a fighter jet.”

At 3,500 feet I spot the runway where Atlantis rolled to a stop on July 21, 2011, culminating the shuttle program, with its 135 missions spanning three decades. I give the stick a gentle tug backward to level out, drop the gear, and ease Dream Chaser down. Now that was fun.

After a session on the simulator, it’s easy to grasp the deep yearning to command a spaceship back to Planet Earth like a sovereign mariner returning from an epic voyage on the high seas. It’s too early to decide who would fly Dream Chaser, but for the inaugural mission, I’d bet it would be Voss or Lindsey—both are keen on piloting the spacecraft. But first, Dream Chaser will have to prevail over numerous tests—some of the toughest now under way at Dryden, where Dream Chaser was taken in May.

Flight tests include high-speed runway tows to check landing gear, brakes, and tires. Engineers will perform a ground resonance analysis, which looks at how vibrations affect the airframe. And they’ll do another helicopter captive carry. If all goes well, Dream Chaser will attempt its first free flight. The plan is for the Skycrane to release a pilotless Dream Chaser at nearly 20,000 feet, at which point the spacecraft will engage its autonomous landing system and glide back to the airfield at Edwards.

Success at Dryden—particularly during the free flight—will lead to piloted tests. That day can’t come too soon for Voss and Lindsey and the rest of the Dream Chaser team. Keeping humans in space “is a huge motivator for me,” says Voss. Lindsey puts it this way: “I struggle with the fact that the U.S. is out of the human spaceflight business. I want to do everything in my power to see that we get our nation back into it.”

Frequent contributor Michael Behar wrote “Lost in America” (Oct./Nov. 2011).

About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar ( writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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