[Updated] Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser test article suffered a mishap on Saturday. Following a successful flight, the left main landing-gear (derived from the Northrop F-5E Tiger II jet fighter) failed to deploy. As a result, the vehicle reportedly flipped on landing. [Update: Sierra Nevada says the vehicle did not flip, but skidded alpng the runway.] Accounts of the landing vary: some are rather dramatic, but Alan Boyle of NBC News quotes a Sierra Nevada engineer saying the pilot would have walked away, if the test article had been manned. The test article is “fully intact,” According to Sierra Nevada Space Systems chairman Mark Sirangelo.
“The pressure vessel was completely pristine, the computers are still working, there was no damage to the crew cabin or flight systems,” Sirangelo told Space News. “I went inside it myself and it was perfectly fine. There was some damage from skidding…. It’s not going to affect our schedule in the long term [but] It might affect whether we do another free flight test this year or next year. We’re still assessing that.”
According to a Sierra Nevada press release, the unmanned vehicle was released from its carrier aircraft, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, at approximately 11:10 AM PST, as planned. Following release, the automated flight-control system steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle followed the planned flight trajectory, flared, and touched down on on the centerline of Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L less than a minute later.
Previous statements show the drop was planned to take place at an altitude 12,000 feet, followed by a 30-40 second glide at an angle of 23 degrees.
It should be noted that landing-gear failures are not uncommon in flight test. One of the reasons for test flights is to uncover such anomalies.
Fighter pilots have a saying: “A MiG on your six is better than no MiG at all.” From that perspective, we view the Dream Chaser’s landing-gear mishap as a positive sign. It means that people are flying and testing things.
That is not to say we shouldn’t take steps to reduce the frequency of landing-gear mishaps.
The Dream Chaser is not the first rocket vehicle to suffer a landing-gear failure. The Delta Clipper Experimental, SpaceShip One, and the Armadillo Aerospace Pixel/Texel lunar-landing demonstrator had landing-gear failures as well.
At this point, we get to say, “I told you so.” Several years ago, we suggested that NASA fund a series of modest prizes for the development of robust, light-weight landing-gear concepts for spacecraft applications.
NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize fund was bare, however, due to Congressional inaction, and the usual suspects were less than helpful. They told us that prizes were politically incorrect, a distraction from Commercial Crew and Cargo, which was deemed more important. In addition, we were told that politicians could not predict who was going to win a prize. As a result, they don’t know who to approach for campaign donations. (They considered this a bug. We view it as a feature.)
Now, one of the Commercisl Crew and Cargo vehicles has suffered a landing-gear failure. Sierra Nevada has not yet determined if the test article will be repaired. The orbital version of Dream Chaser is already under construction, and it is possible that the flight test provided sufficient data for Sierra Nevada to proceed to the next step of the program. In the worst case, however, there could be a domino effect that would affect the entire program. In that case, the result could be the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for US taxpayers, Sierra Nevada stockholders, or both.
By funding prizes for the development of critical systems, NASA would be following in the tradition of its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which did basic aeronautical and systems research applicable to commercial and military aviation in the 30′s and 40′s. It would also be fulfilling the mandate of its charter, which requires the agency to “seek and promote, to the fullest extent possible, the commercial use of outer space.”
After Saturday, the failure of NASA and Congress to fund technology prizes for systems such as landing gear seems penny-wise and pound-foolish.
NASA Administrator (and former astronaut) Major General Charles Bolden flew the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser simulator during a visit to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 22.
If Dream Chaser is not the future, it is much closer than NASA’s $10-billion attempt to recreate the Apollo capsule — but who will tell Congress that?
The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser test article arrived at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on May 15, in preparation for the next phase of its test program.
For the next phase, a truck will tow the vehicle down the runway to validate performance of the nose strut, brakes, and tires. Those tests will be followed by captive carry tests using an Erickson Skycrane helicopter, leading to unmanned drop tests later this year.
On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corporation held a press conference to make a major announcement concerning the development of its development its Dream Chaser lifting body. The question-and-answer session also revealed interesting facts about Sierra Nevada’s plans for Dream Chaser, which are not limited to the International Space Station.
The major topic of the press conference was Sierra Nevada’s new partnership with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. Lockheed Martin, it was announced, will build the composite structure for the Dream Chaser flight test article at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. The structure is being built under the $212.5 million Space Act Agreement which Sierra Nevada recieved under the NASA Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Program. Lockheed Martin will also serve as a certification partner to help Sierra Nevada achieve NASA’s certification requirements for carrying crew to the International Space Station.
During the question-and-answer session, Mark Sirangelo said the destination for Dream Chaser is Low Earth Orbit, not just the International Space Station. Sirangelo is Sierra Nevada’s corporate vice president and head of Space Systems.
Sierra Nevada conducted the first captive carry test of the Dream Chaser today. The full-scale flight-test article was carried aloft by a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado.
The test is an interim step toward unpowered drop, glide, and landing tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California, scheduled for later this year. For more further details on the program, see Dream Chaser Tests Hint at Suborbital Possibilities.
Sierra Nevada has revealed details of its test plans for the Dream Chaser at Spaceflight Now.
Sierra Nevada expects to begin captive-carry tests of the Dream Chaser test article from a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter soon, perhaps before the end of May. The first captive-carry tests will take place in Colorado. The test article will be shipped to California this summer for additional captive carry tests leading to drop tests and automated landings at Edward Air Force base. The drop tests will also use a helicopter, either a CH-53 Sea Stallion or CH-47 Chinook.
This would lead to manual landing tests with a suborbital flight article in 2014, followed by automated flights to orbit in 2015 and crewed orbital flights in 2016.
The 2014 suborbital vehicle suggests some interesting possibilities. A suborbital Dream Chaser might provide a backup for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, if that program runs into trouble.
Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing the Dream Chaser, an orbital lifting-body spacecraft to be launched by an Atlas V rocket. Sierra Nevada plans to use Dream Chaser to provide commercial crew and cargo services to the International Space Station and to transport citizen space explorers. In 2011, the company received $80 million in funding under NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Development (CCDEV) 2 program. With that funding, Sierra Nevada has constructed an atmospheric test vehicle which it plans to drop test in 2012.
Dream Chaser was derived from the HL-20 lifting body, which NASA studied in the 1980′s as a possible design for a Personnel Launch System (PLS) to supplement or replace the Space Shuttle. Sierra Nevada produced the following video, which shows how HL-20 evolved into Dream Chaser.
This corporate video only tells part of the story. NASA’s HL-20 design was itself derived from an earlier, Russian design. The MiG-105 Spiral was the Soviet equivalent of the USAF ‘s X-20 DynaSoar, a military spaceplane being developing during the Cold War. Like the X-20 DynaSoar, the Spiral never made it into space. The Soviet Union did build and fly an atmospheric test version, though. The following video shows some of the flight tests and gives a preview of what we may see Dream Chaser doing later this year.