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Dream Chaser prototype spaceship damaged after first free-flying test

Image: Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser prototype space plane, shown here during a captive-carry test in August, was put through its first free-flying test on Saturday but suffered a landing-strip anomaly.

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s prototype for its Dream Chaser space plane flew freely for the first time on Saturday for an atmospheric test, but sustained damage when its landing gear failed to deploy properly.

The damage has yet to be fully assessed, but preliminary reports suggest that the prototype can be repaired after its tumble on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The free-flying test and its aftermath are to be discussed at a news conference on Tuesday.

The Dream Chaser program is receiving $227.5 million from NASA as part of a development program aimed at having U.S.-built spaceships ready to carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by as early as 2017. The space agency is supporting parallel development programs at the Boeing Co. and SpaceX, to the tune of more than $1 billion in total.

Dream Chaser's "lifting body" design is based on a 20-year-old design pioneered by NASA, and it would be the only winged spacecraft among the three that have been proposed. Eventually, the mini-shuttle is supposed to carry up to seven passengers to and from the space station, and cargo as well. It would be launched on an Atlas 5 rocket, and would glide to a runway landing at the end of each mission.

Saturday's unmanned free-flying glide test was a key milestone for Dream Chaser: Over the past few months, the craft has gone through a series of "captive-carry" aerial tests rising to a height of more than 12,000 feet (3.7 kilometers), but this was the first time the mini-shuttle was set loose from the helicopter that carried it over California's Mojave Desert.

Sierra Nevada emphasized the test flight's successes in a statement released Saturday: 

"The vehicle successfully released from its carrier aircraft, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, as planned at approximately 11:10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Following release, the Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L right on centerline. While there was an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment, the high-quality flight and telemetry data throughout all phases of the approach-and-landing test will allow SNC teams to continue to refine their spacecraft design. SNC and NASA Dryden are currently reviewing the data. As with any space flight test program, there will be anomalies that we can learn from, allowing us to improve our vehicle and accelerate our rate of progress."

The landing gear used for Saturday's flight test was adapted from the gear used on an F-5E fighter jet. Future versions of the Dream Chaser will use a different design.

Some of the initial reports from the scene suggested that the landing-gear anomaly was dramatic. NASASpaceflight.com said the prototype craft flipped over on the runway. Later reports were more positive, bolstering hopes that the damage can be easily repaired and that tests can resume with the existing prototype. One of the commenters who responded to Spaceflight Now's report on Saturday's flight test said a "pilot would have walked away" from the vehicle.

More about the Dream Chaser:

This report was first published at 2:52 p.m. ET Oct. 27, and updated at 6:34 p.m. ET to incorporate additional information about the flight test and its aftermath.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.