Top NASA Official Visits California as "Dream Chaser" Tests Begin

The "Dream Chaser" spacecraft is designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in NASA's post-shuttle era

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    The "Dream Chaser" spacecraft is designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in NASA's post-shuttle era. The "next generation" spacecraft is smaller, less complex and easier to operate. Patrick Healy reports from Edwards Air Force Base for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on May 22, 2013. (Published Thursday, May 23, 2013)

    What might be the next vehicle to carry astronauts to space and back will be inspected by top NASA officials Wednesday at Dryden Flight Research Center north of Los Angeles.

    The officials, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, plan to inspect the "Dream Chaser" flight vehicle Wednesday. The "Dream Chaser" was developed by Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. to carry astronauts to the International Space Station -- a mission formerly carried out by NASA's space shuttles.

    "Dream Chaser" arrived last week for tests at Dryden Flight Research Center, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles at Edwards Air Force Base.

    Researchers will test the vehicle's aerodynamic performance and landing capabilities at the air base. The spacecraft tests are part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which requires the vehicle to meet certain performance milestones.

    The tests include one in which the Dream Chaser will be towed by a truck, allowing engineers to evaluate the vehicle's nose strut, brakes and tires. It also will be hoisted by an Erickson Skycrane helicopter to simulate loads Dream Chaser might encounter during flight.

    As researchers put Dream Chaser through tests on the West Coast, astronauts at Virginia's Langley Research Center are participating in flight simulations. The simulations allow astronauts to evaluated the spacecraft's handling on approach and landing.

    The design is based on wind tunnel tests and other analysis at Langley during the 1980s and 1990s as NASA began considering the post-shuttle future of space travel. Langley engineers and Sierra Nevada Corp. began working on the design together about six years ago.

    The CCP program is designed to facilitate private development of spacecrafts and rockets used to deliver astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

    After the Dryden Flight Research Center visit, Bolden is expected to visit Jet Propulsion Laboratory Thursday. A prototype ion thruster designed to capture and relocate an asteroid is being tested at JPL.