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Dream Chaser space plane to begin NASA flight tests

Sierra Nevada's craft is a commercial answer to the space shuttle, designed to bring U.S. astronauts to space in a U.S. vehicle.

A flatbed truck carrying the Dream Chaser, its wings and tail removed, pauses at Hangar 4802 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California. NASA/Tom Tschida

In another sign of ever-increasing commercial spaceflight activity, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane has arrived at NASA for testing.

Wrapped in plastic, the craft arrived at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where it will eventually undergo its first autonomous free flight Approach and Landing Test (ALT).

Part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program along with SpaceX and Boeing, the Dream Chaser is designed to launch vertically on top of an Atlas 5 rocket, dock with the International Space Station, and then return to Earth like a glider, landing on a runway.

Successful tests of the Dream Chaser could help end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get people to the ISS, which costs U.S. taxpayers over $60 million a seat.

"We are one step closer to returning U.S. astronauts on a U.S. vehicle to the International Space Station and in doing so continuing the long standing and proud legacy that was the Space Shuttle program," Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, said in a release.

Originally developed by NASA as a space station lifeboat and Langley's Horizontal Lander HL-20 lifting body concept, the Dream Chaser can seat seven. Its propulsion system is based on the hybrid rocket engine that Sierra Nevada designed for SpaceShipTwo.

It passed a major safety review with NASA last month, and after its reassembly at Dryden it will be subject to a series of ground tests, and will then do a "captive carry" flight suspended from an Erickson Skycrane helicopter.

For an idea of what the Dream Chaser will look like when it launches and gets into orbit, check out the computer animation below.