CORERCTION: The Oct. 26 flight was a funded milestone from the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, not a milestone from the third round of the program, as an earlier version of this story had said.

WASHINGTON — Despite a crash landing, a full-scale model of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser — one of three spacecraft vying to take the space shuttle’s place as NASA’s means of flying astronauts to the international space station — may actually have performed well enough in an Oct. 26 test flight to clear an $8 million development milestone, according to a Sierra Nevada executive. 

“The milestone was all about the flight worthiness of the vehicle and the data from the flight and the ability for us to autonomously control the flight in the air,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, told SpaceNews in an Oct. 28 phone interview. “The fact that the landing gear didn’t go down once we hit the ground … was not actually part of the test.”

SNC has not yet decided whether to repair the Dream Chaser test craft, which does not use the same landing gear the orbital vehicle would use. Investigating what went wrong will take “a couple of weeks,” Sirangelo estimated. He said the vehicle, which is now in a  hangar in Mojave, Calif., was “fully intact” after the crash.

“The pressure vessel was completely pristine, the computers are still working, there was no damage to the crew cabin or flight systems,” Sirangelo said. “I went inside it myself and it was perfectly fine. There was some damage from skidding. 

“We learned everything we wanted to on this test, and learned more than we expected to learn,” Sirangelo said. “We believe we’ve got most of the data we need [but] I can’t honestly say, I just don’t know yet. It’s not going to affect our schedule in the long term [but] it might affect whether we do another free flight test this year or next year. We’re still assessing that.”

The Oct. 26 flight is the final milestone Sierra Nevada owes NASA under the $101.9 million Commercial Crew Development 2 Space Act Agreement the company got from NASA in 2011 in the second round of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. This test was originally scheduled to be completed in July 2012. 

Whatever Sierra Nevada thinks, it will ultimately be up to NASA to decide whether the botched landing — caused when the test craft’s left landing gear failed to deploy — necessitates a do-over of the test.

“NASA’s Partner Integration Team will be evaluating the data from the test to determine if the success criteria … have been met,” NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto wrote in an Oct. 29 email. “It is not required that the test be anomaly free in order for the success criteria to be met.”

Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA headquarters here, said the agency “was very pleased with the flight portion of Saturday’s test of the Dream Chaser test article. The vehicle performed very well and Sierra Nevada will have lots of test data to use for its future development effort.”

If another flight is required, “we think the Engineering Test Article is flyable again,” Sirangelo said. However, If SNC elects not to repair the craft, which took several months to build, it could construct an “interim aeroshell” at the Michoud Space Assembly Facility near New Orleans for more test flights, Sirangelo told SpaceNews. 

The orbital version of Dream Chaser, meanwhile, has been under construction for “several months,” Sirangelo said. 

At about 2:10 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 26, the so-called Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article was dropped from an altitude of about 4 kilometers by a helicopter. The craft then autonomously descended to the runway at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Conditions were spot-on for the flight, which clocked in at just over one minute, until touchdown. After Dream Chaser hit the runway at about 300 kilometers per hour, its left-side landing gear failed to deploy, sending the craft on a skid, Sirangelo said.

Sierra Nevada continues to develop Dream Chaser, which would launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, with the $227.5 million it got in August 2012 under the $1.1 billion third round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The company’s award was the smallest of three Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Space Act Agreements given out last year. The Commercial Crew Program’s objective is to produce one commercially designed spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the international space station from U.S. launch sites. 

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston got $480 million to develop its CST-100 space capsule, also to be launched on Atlas 5, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. got $440 million to work on its crew-rated Dragon capsule, which would launch atop the company’s Falcon 9 1.1 rocket. 

NASA now plans to solicit proposals for the fourth round of the Commercial Crew Program — which will be funded through a contract that permits NASA to issue task orders for routine crew flights — on Nov. 19. A draft solicitation has been circulating since July. Proposals are due Jan. 22, and awards are expected in September 2014, according to a NASA document posted online Oct. 25.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...