First glide test of Dream Chaser spacecraft successful, but ends in a flip


October 28, 2013

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has carried out the first gliding approach and landing test of its Dream Chaser spacecraft (Photo: SNC)

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has carried out the first gliding approach and landing test of its Dream Chaser spacecraft (Photo: SNC)

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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

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

Looks a lot like an update from the old X24A & X24B lifting bodies of the 60's & early 70's.

Rusty Harris

wasn't this supposed to happen summer 2012 from the scaled composites whiteknighttwo? what happened, why the delay, and why from a helicopter?


is this what happen with the six million dollar man? wow no back up craft :(

Leonard Foster

I read elsewhere that this "lifting body" concept was roughly 20 years old... but that's false. Because I toured a model of a very similar lifting body craft when I was a child, making the basic design more than 40 years old.

Anne Ominous

Go to the Russians, they have both a nice Buran sitting around. Tho even better if you want to go small scale, is the test bed for the Buran. That one is green and sitting next to a HIND in a museum, on the outskirts of Moscow. (No donĀ“t pronounce Moscow as Mos cow..if any thing its Mosckba). Excellent museum tho :D

Sad about this accident tho, I am for any and all space stuff.

Toffe Kaal

Well, this is so stupid. It is like going to climb Mount Everest and then getting involved into a car accident on the way to the first base camp.

It would be a shame of they gave up because of the the stupid landing gear. It has nothing to do with the rest of the vehicle. Finally, 40 years after the concept of a lifting body was invented, some should make an actual lifting body vehicle.

Leon Alexander It reminds me of the lifting body design by NASA. I think they were cool. I think this newer design is even cooler. They definitely improved the design, IMO.


Looks like Farscape1, flies like the Six Million Dollar Man's orbiter. That design has the WORST luck!

Larry Hooten

Here ya go Chizzy, Spaceship 2's second flight, the flight test mentioned in the article above is a different company.

Mark Eastaugh

Who pays the freight for this failure?

Bob Higgins

If you're going to use MY runway, and MY cleanup crew, I get to see the video of you throwing parts of your airplane all over it.

-Joe Taxpayer


In the interest of contributing, rather than to nitpick, in all likeliehood, the author meant to say landing gear door, rather than flap, as flaps are generally designed as an integral, wing mounted, trailing edge aerodynamic aid to low speed handling and control by increasing the effective camber of a wing section or expanding its surface area, or both, while a gear door is pretty much serves as an aerodynamic feature to smooth airflow and reduce drag once the gear is in the well. The asymmetric deployment of the gear and door may introduce a degree of anomalous low speed handling, like a pitch burble or other bogeyman, but not so much as to disrupt the roundout and touchdown. In this case, gear geometry, strut pressure, tire pressure and the scale of the craft likely impacted handling dynamics, having an a disproportionate effect on the relatively close coupled and short-spanned vehicle. (Lifting bodies are often more like a jet ski than a seagull in appearance, but can glide very well, with high internal volume and capacity, ruggedness and structural simplicity being hallmarks of the type) The gear system trouble from the test article does not invalidate the flight data; holefully SNC will be back up soon. Other lifting bodies have proven remarkably tough and repairable. The already planned gear design would take all that into account, regrettably, engineering flight test has to balance available off the shelf hardware against cost and development timelines for validating untried systems, so off the shelf gear designs are not at all uncommon. Sticky gear doors and unwilling struts, quirky hydraulics or even dirt on a switch are notorious jokers in aviation; some boost-glide vehicles have used either skids or (in initial flight test) fixed gear to get around low speed, low altitude surprises like a failed gear deploy or jammed door in the absence of an engine with which to effect an abort and go-around, before moving on to a further testing. In this case, validating glide performance and flight controls, etc, would require the gear to remain up until the appropriate time.

Roland Delhomme

first: NASA had in the 60s and 70s (failures and prone to accidents ... just ask Steve Austin) :D second: the Russians were the first maneuverable and flying capable. (the end of the wings could be folded up) But they preferred the buran (looked more like the sapce shuttle) Ultimately neither outperformed the x15 (if developed could have done orbital)

Charlie Nudelman

Hmm.... So we decommissioned a space shuttle to build another space shuttle? ;) But in all seriousness, This looks like an improvement but it is definitely NOT a new design. (if you would like to see some of my sketches from elementary school let me know)


Was there a helicopter in the flight path too? This is like a flashback to the crash that was used as the inspiration for "The Six Million Dollar Man", film of which was used in the TV show's into.

Even the vehicle looks like a copy of the one that crashed in the 1960's! Starting over from concepts last actively worked on around 50 years ago.

Shows how delayed R&D on space technology has been due to politicians and others against humans in space.

I still laugh at the claims that the Space Shuttle was based on lifting body technology developed from the X vehicles shaped like this new version. Pffft! The Shuttle is a brick with wings on. What did carry over was the steep "falling with style" landing approach the design proved was possible.

Gregg Eshelman

Lifting body flight is thousands of years old. Aborigine atlatl's with lightweight bone points and tapered fletchless shafts were capable of fairly level 60 meter flights at which time they stalled and landed flat on the ground. They actually glided and did not arch like a ballistic heavy tipped, fletched shaft requires. It's no wonder they never developed the bow and arrow. Even the hunting boomerang was as much lifting body as rotating wing. We just keep rediscovering what ancient man already knew.


Shades of the X-20 DynaSoar! Which means we could have been here or were over 40 years ago if NASA hadn't pushed the Air Force out of the Space Program.

The landing gear failure reminds me of the Douglas DC-X program which was killed even though it was working and showed great promise with a SSTO vehicle. Now that there is competition in our own space programs we are seeing innovation and lots of different ideas getting a chance to explore many options. This was stiffled in the 60s when the government insisted on running a 'single source' program through NASA as the only way to space. It pains me in my golden years to know that we could have been much further by these days if only the government hadn't monopolized the exploration of space in the infant days of the program.

History Nut

The "Six Million Dollar Man" accident was fiction that used actual footage from the crash during testing of the First full-on NASA Lifting Body,the M2-F2, which was caused by a helicopter being in the wrong place at the wrong time- this is made clear in the full footage of the incident.

The pilot,Bruce Petersen, was badly injured but survived, although he later lost one eye in the hospital from staph infection, which ended his career as a test-pilot.

The aircraft was not capable of making a "go-around"- there was only one shot at landing in the desert there at Edwards AFB and it was a dangerous approach,indeed- at speeds approaching 300mph after being dropped from the wing of a B-52, high in the Sky.

The "flare" at landing had to be precise- there was no margin for error.

The helicopter position on the deck right where the landing was intended created turbulence and obstruction that was nearly fatal.

Although at first seemingly destroyed,the aerospace-craft was, rebuilt in-house by Dryden Facility technicians with factory support and was made "better,stronger and faster" than she was before... IN REAL LIFE!

It is important to note that this was the ONLY crash during the Lifting Body program.

The whole story began with NASA technician Dale Reed and his homemade scale model which his wife filmed with an 8mm home movie camera.

On YouTube:

The first prototype was made from plywood,mahogany and Cessna landing gear and was initially pulled by a "hot rod Pontiac convertible" with NASA nomenclature on the doors.

Soon, she graduated to being towed by an R4D(the U.S. Navy version of the DC-3)and safely accomplishing powered landings.

The Lifting Body was one of the most successful programs ever undertaken by NASA and generated all manner of data about the upper atmosphere,the beginning of Space and what it takes to safely transition that region.

For these men and women, "The Sky was NOT the Limit".... it was only the beginning of new frontiers!

They were going farther,faster,sooner with much less money (and almost no computers) than what is being done now with our supposedly superior technology....

Dale Reed's book, "Wingless Flight", which is a fascinating first-person account of the history of the Lifting Body program is available for free online reading on NASA's website:

I HIGHLY recommend it to all who want to know more about the time when Men&Women could look beyond the Sky... with nothing much more than slide-rulers,their bare hands,primitive tools and scraps.

Dale Reed's first prototype program consisted entirely of just paper models,a long office hallway.... and a tape measure.

The wooden M1-F1 was built largely by volunteers and cost about $35,000- less than what Erickson charges for one day's use of their "Sky-Crane" for test like this.

These were people of passion... not profit.

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