Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) carried out the first gliding approach and landing test of their Dream Chaser spacecraft at Edwards Air Force Base on October 26. The vehicle dropped from its carrier aircraft at 11:10 am, and carried out gliding and landing maneuvers flawlessly. However, the left landing gear door did not function, causing the test spacecraft to flip on landing.

The Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article (ETA) holds roughly the same position in the development of the SNC spacecraft as the USS Enterprise did in the space shuttle program. Never intended for spaceflight, the ETA is strictly an atmospheric test vehicle, to be used to establish flight procedures and test the engineering design of the Dream Chaser for the descent and landing phases of a full flight.

The ETA was lifted to its drop altitude by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, capable of lifting a payload of 20,000 lb (9.1 tonnes) to an altitude of 9,000 feet (2,740 m). The drop height for Saturday's test has not yet been announced. Once released, the Dream Chaser autopilot system guided the unmanned vehicle to its preprogrammed glide slope, lined up right on the centerline of Edwards AFB Runway 22L, which led to a landing at a speed of 191 knots (360 kph). The total time in flight was less than a minute.

Unfortunately, the left landing gear did not deploy, causing the ETA to flip over in what has been described as a "spectacular crash" by Alan Boyle of NBC News. To add insult to injury, the landing gear were not those intended for use with the production Dream Chaser, but rather were adapted from the landing gear on the F5 fighter jet. On looking over the damage, Sierra Nevada is holding out hope for repairing the ETA, but it is not yet clear that this is a likely prospect within the structure of the entire project.

Sierra Nevada will host a teleconference on October 29 to brief media on the approach and landing test. A video of the flight will be released that reportedly does not include the crash footage. Sierra Nevada will indicate what this crash means for their participation in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, and where their next steps are likely to lead them.

Editor's note: (October 29): The early report that the Dream Chaser flipped on landing was incorrect. SNC now reports that it skidded off the runway and was damaged, but is likely to be repaired for further flight tests.

Source: Sierra Nevada Corporation