Sierra Nevada suffered a bit of a setback recently in their aim to become the next company to make deliveries to the space station. Their spacecraft. Dream Chaser, crash landed during an unmanned test flight yesterday.
The race for private participation in space has been heating up as of late. We've covered the successes of SpaceX and Orbital in the past, but Sierra Nevada's mishap is a good reminder that developing spacecraft is tricky business. Despite the accident, the company seems to be on track with their unique design. Unlike SpaceX and Orbital, who are relying on capsules reminiscent of the American Apollo or Russian Soyuz, Sierra Nevada is building a spaceplane similar to the Space Shuttle. The small craft (about a third the size of the Shuttle) launches aboard a rocket, but glides back to Earth like a plane, landing on a runway.
Landing adds another layer of complexity and, in this case, another point of failure. During an unmanned glide test, the craft's left landing gear did not deploy correctly. This caused the plane to flip over upon touching down. It wasn't a complete waste, however - data collected during the glide will help refine the spacecraft design.
The crash also highlights another focus of modern spacecraft development: safety. Sierra Nevada claims that, had the plane been manned, the pilot would have walked away from the crash. SpaceX and Orbital are also developing ejection systems for their capsules. In the wake of two disastrous Space Shuttle accidents, it's likely that no American spacecraft will ever fly without a safety system again.