Sierra Nevada Corporation has conducted the first captive-carry tests of the Dream Chaser winged lifting body, with glide flights anticipated in coming weeks.
Captive-carry testing is being conducted at NASA's Dryden Test Flight Research Center on the grounds of Edwards AFB, California. The tests follow taxi tests, in which the unpowered vehicle was towed to speed and released to roll down the runway.
The vehicle is hauled aloft by an Erickson-owned Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane.
Dream Chaser is one of three vehicles being tested under NASA's commercial crew integrated capability (CCiCap) programme to establish a crew launch and return capability from low Earth orbit. Sierra Nevada stands to earn a total of $212.5 million for completing a series of technical and financial milestones. The company will receive only half as much as fellow awardees SpaceX (with a manned version of its Dragon capsule) and Boeing (with the CST-100 capsule).
CCiCap is the third round of such funding, meant to usher the three designs through Critical Design Review, the last major technical design milestone. A fourth round of funding, dubbed commercial crew transportation capability (CCtCap), meant to downselect to one or two competitors and fund them through operational spaceflights, is currently in the works.
Currently the only spacecraft capable of bringing astronauts to low Earth orbit are Russia's Soyuz capsule and China's Shenzhou capsule. The Soyuz is the only system qualified to dock with the International Space Station, a capability for which Russian space agency Roscosmos charges dearly.