For the would-be spaceship named the Dream Chaser, everything on the first flight of a prototype went perfectly — until the craft touched down, toppled on its side, skidded off the runway and wound up in the sand of the Mojave Desert.
The new version of NASA’s space shuttle, being designed by Sierra Nevada Corp., is vying to carry astronauts to and from the international space station in four or five more years.
The Nevada-based company tested a full-scale model at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Saturday. A helicopter dropped the unmanned craft from 12,500 feet in a first free flight. Everything worked well until the end, when the left landing gear deployed too late and the test vehicle skidded off the runway.
Company space systems chief Mark Sirangelo said Tuesday that damage was minor. The left gear was still attached, and the tire wasn’t even shredded, he said. The crew cabin area was unscathed — astronauts would have been uninjured, he said. The flight computers never stopped working, and nothing critical was damaged.
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SpaceX and Boeing are both developing crew capsules that would re-enter the atmosphere the way Apollo capsules did nearly half a century ago, with the final descent slowed by parachutes. SpaceX would launch its capsule atop the company’s own rocket, the Falcon 9, while Boeing’s capsule would, like the Dream Chaser, ride atop an Atlas 5, the rocket owned by United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed.