Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser: Successful Flight Test Puts On Track for 2020 NASA ISS Resupply

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser looks like an airplane but flies like a spacecraft. NASA / Carla Thomas

NASA loves the International Space Station, but after the retirement of the last space shuttle in 2011, it's become an expensive destination. That's why the agency has been encouraging companies to step up and take over the duties of ferrying supplies—and one day even astronauts—to the orbital base camp. On November 11, commercial missions took another step forward with a successful test flight from Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser, which is due to first ferry cargo to the International Space Station around 2019.

During this week's test, a helicopter lifted the Dream Chaser spacecraft 12,400 feet, then dropped it and watched it land smoothly—a surprisingly low-tech way to mimic what happens when a supply ship comes back to Earth after visiting the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada and NASA are planning to review the test flight to confirm both the spacecraft's general flight characteristics and the performance of the flight software on board, which was in use for the first time.

During this testing period, Sierra Nevada and NASA aren't actually working with a Dream Chaser spacecraft—instead, they're working with a fixed-wing version. That means it's the same basic shape and has the same characteristics, but with solid wings, like those of a plane. The final spacecraft will instead have folding wings to better fit inside the rockets that will launch it on its path to the International Space Station.

Other preliminary work the company has been performing on the Dream Chaser vehicle to prepare it for its first mission include a tow test and a captive carry test. During a tow test, a pick-up truck drags the spacecraft up to 60 miles per hour, then releases it and lets the vehicle stop itself. During a captive carry test, a helicopter lifts the spacecraft and lets it practice its moves.

The Dream Chaser is just one of the commercially built spacecraft NASA has arranged to take over supplying the International Space Station. Others include the SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus, which have both been flying missions for several years.

Sierra Nevada hopes to hop aboard its first rocket for a resupply mission in 2019 or 2020.