The first test flight of a prototype space plane has been hailed a success – despite it skidding off the runway on landing.
Everything was going smoothly for Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser until one of its wheels failed to drop down on landing.
It is one of three space taxis under development in partnership with Nasa to fly astronauts to the International Space Station following the retirement of the shuttles in 2011.
Competitors Space Exploration Technologies and Boeing are working on seven-person capsules that return to Earth via parachutes.
However Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser resembles a miniature space shuttle with wings to glide down for a runway landing.
The company took a significant step toward proving Dream Chaser can fly with its first unmanned glide test at Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, California, on Saturday.
A full-size Dream Chaser model was carried to an altitude of about 12,500ft by a heavy-lift helicopter and released for a minute-long glide back to the runway.
“The first thing we needed to do was find out ‘Does this shape, does this type of vehicle actually fly? Is it air-worthy?’,” Sierra Nevada Vice President Mark Sirangelo said.
“Although all the computer modeling and the simulations told us it was, there had not been a lifting body of this type flown since the 1970s.”
After being released, the autonomously controlled Dream Chaser successfully positioned itself for flight, flared its nose to slow for touchdown and settled on the runway.
However, one of the vehicle’s three landing gears did not deploy, causing the plane to skid off the landing strip and end up in the sand.
Engineers are still assessing how much damage was sustained but the crew cabin and onboard computers were unscathed.
Nasa hopes to buy rides commercially to carry its astronauts to the space station by 2017.