Mini-shuttle glides to safe landing in desert test flight

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A mini-shuttle that one day may ferry supplies and astronauts to the space station is one small step closer to space after a successful test flight over the weekend.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane safely glided to the Edwards Air Force Base runway Saturday after being dropped from a helicopter in a free-flight test.  The sleek but stubby black and white craft rolled to a stop at the same site where NASA’s full-sized shuttles sometimes landed, looking very much like a ‘baby brother’ to the retired orbiters.

Dream Chaser, which is about a quarter of the size of NASA’s old shuttles, was added by NASA last year as a fourth privately-developed space ferry option.  Boeing, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX have also designed or flown spacecraft, but Sierra Nevada’s spaceplane stands out in obvious contrast to the other companies’ capsule designs.

The company is planning both a manned version for astronauts and an unmanned version for cargo, both of which would be launched atop an expendable rocket.  

NASA said Saturday’s unmanned approach and landing test was meant to “validate the aerodynamic properties, flight software and control system performance” of Dream Chaser.  A similar test in 2013 ended with a crash-landing when the craft’s landing gear – which had been borrowed from a fighter jet for the test – collapsed.  

This successful test, though, should keep Dream Chaser on track for a debut spaceflight within the next two years.  Sierra Nevada’s six-mission contract calls for Dream Chaser to start delivering cargo to the space station in 2019.

Of course, Dream Chaser is not the only mini-shuttle aiming for the stars.  The U.S. Air Force’s two mysterious X-37B spaceplanes – which are roughly the same size as Dream Chaser – have flown four unmanned missions since 2010, totaling more than 2,000 days in space.  A fifth classified mission is currently underway.