Dream Chaser encounters rough landing
Last Updated: 15:56 October 29, 2013
Sirangelo said the results of the test flight could accelerate development of the seven-passenger orbital vehicle.
"We were fortunate to get almost all the data we needed on the very first flight," Sirangelo said in a media conference call.
Click here to watch a video of the flight.
The Dream Chaser, built in Louisville before being shipped to California in May for testing, is designed to be flown by a pilot as well as autonomously, and is slated for its first space mission for NASA by 2016.
The vehicle performed "almost a perfectly stable flight," Sirangelo said of Saturday morning's test at Edwards Air Force Base. The flight marked the first free-flight approach-and-landing test for Dream Chaser. The vehicle was released from a carrier helicopter at an altitude of 12,500 feet and flew for about a minute before touching down at Edwards.
The spacecraft, flown autonomously for the test, sustained some damage to its outer protective coating and shell during the post-landing skid, but nothing that can't be fixed for future test flights, Sirangelo said. There were no injuries to anyone on the ground.
Sirangelo said Dream Chaser followed modeled trajectories and issued commands according to plan. It entered a 50-degree dive to mimic the return of an orbital vehicle and pulled out of the dive as it was supposed to.
The test's main objective, Sirangelo said, was to determine how the spacecraft and the shape of its design would fly in real life beyond the modeling simulations conducted.
"We really wanted to make sure that this design was going to fly, and in the first 10 seconds we knew very quickly that it was going to fly and fly very well," Sirangelo said.
The snag came upon landing. Although the vehicle properly issued commands for the landing gear to deploy and hit its target on the runway, the left landing gear did not deploy in time, causing the vehicle to skid off of the left side of the runway.
The company is investigating what went wrong, though Sirangelo said it appears that computer systems operated correctly and that there was some sort of mechanical hang-up with the gear itself. The gear had been tested more than 50 times leading up to the program and had no issues. Sirangelo said that the gear is not the same one that will be used on the operational orbital vehicle, which is being built by SNC strategic partner Lockheed Martin in Louisiana.
The faulty landing gear did eventually deploy during the skid.
"Fortunately for us everything we need to make the investigation (about what went wrong) is still attached to the vehicle," Sirangelo said.
Sirangelo said the seven-passenger crew cabin was undamaged, and all systems remain fully operational, providing some valuable data as to the durability of the spacecraft.
Sirangelo said that had Dream Chaser been piloted during such a problem with the landing gear, there would have been additional steps the pilot could have made to try to get the gear to deploy before landing.
Dream Chaser is slated for a second autonomous test flight. But even with the accident, Sirangelo said that flight could be scrapped given the quality of data gathered from Saturday's flight. The vehicle is scheduled for piloted approach and landing tests in 2014.
"On the list of things that could have gone wrong for us, it's one that's fairly minor for us in the future of the vehicle," Sirangelo said.
Dream Chaser is being designed as a replacement to the retired space shuttles. Sirangelo said it's designed to be an all-purpose space SUV of sorts that can take crew and cargo to the international space station but could also be used for other missions like construction of a new space station or for short- or long-duration science missions.
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