Just after dawn on August 30, a Chinook helicopter's two enormous rotor blades began to spin at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Then the beluga whale-shaped helicopter began to rise off the Mohave desert floor with a 200-foot long tether dangled to the ground.
At the opposite end of the rope was a revolutionary spacecraft called the Dream Chaser that slowly was lifted skyward. Suspended high over the Mohave, the "captive carry" test flight was used to test out the telemetry and control systems before a planned drop test towards the end of 2017 to demonstrate its ability to accomplish an auto pilot approach and landing to a runway.
If you were dazzled by NASA's giant space shuttles from 1981 to 2011, the Dream Chaser offers an improved version, albeit smaller one measuring just 30 feet in length. Its maker, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) calls it a "space utility vehicle," marketing it as a crew and cargo transport to low earth orbit. It's a self-launching, self-flying, self-landing small spacecraft (about the length of a Cessna) that can make 15 or more trips to space and land, after each one, on any commercial runway that’s 10,000 feet long—no Cape Canaveral necessary.
The unmanned Dream Chaser can be modified anytime to carry seven astronauts to space. It currently is equipped to only carry cargo to space. That translates to 12,125 pounds of cargo, in a space about the size of a studio apartment.
“It went as good as we could possibly expect,” said Steve Lindsey, a former Space Shuttle commander and vice president of space exploration systems for SNC, during a briefing here after the completion of the flight. “From what we saw in real time, everything was working exactly as expected.”
A second captive carry flight, expected to take place in about a month, will incorporate lessons learned from this flight, the company said. That will be followed by a free flight test before the end of the year.
In July SNC signed a contract with United Launch Alliance for two Atlas 5 launches, in 2020 and 2021, of Dream Chaser spacecraft flying cargo missions to the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser will launch on an Atlas 5 552, a version of the most powerful Atlas 5 variant with a dual-engine Centaur upper stage. Its wings and solar power arrays will pop out, dock with the Space Station, and then, unloaded, it will slide through the atmosphere and land horizontally like a plane.
After flying up 12,500 feet in late August, looping the Dream Chaser through the air the Chinook helicopter lowered the space-faring vehicle back down to the Armstrong Flight Research Center-- the same spot where its big-brother shuttle landed when it didn't touch down at the Kennedy Space Center.
NASA isn’t the only one interested in this space vehicle: the United Nations and the European Space Agency, among others, are exploring the Dream Chaser for future missions. It's relatively affordable and relatively accessible as space for astronauts and science experiments. Like NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter, Dream Chaser launches vertically and comes back down to Earth horizontally in a runway landing, but not just to Earth's space centers, but to Earth’s airports.
The Dream Chaser is shooting for a mid-2020 launch from the Space Coast and landing at Kennedy Space Center 's former shuttle runway. At least two launches are planned from Cape Canaveral on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. The reusable Dream Chaser will be prepared for launch and refurbished between missions at Kennedy Space Center.
“I know that runway and I know that area like the back of my hand,” said Lindsey, who landed at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility five times as a shuttle pilot or commander. “We will have a big footprint at Kennedy Space Center. We’ll be there to stay, we hope.”