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By Kelly Werthmann

LOUISVILLE, Colo. (CBS4/AP) – A small spacecraft made one giant leap for science thanks to mankind in Colorado.

Last weekend, a test version of the Dream Chaser – a reusable spacecraft similar to a shuttle – made a successful free flight and landing in California.

flight crew prepares dream chaser 4 Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

More than 400 engineers and employees of the Sierra Nevada Corporation location in Louisville built the autonomous space vehicle.

“We’re really excited about the progress we’re making,” systems engineer Kathy Benzin said.

flight crew prepares dream chaser 3 Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Slung below the helicopter on a 200-foot tether, the full-scale atmospheric test version of the Dream Chaser was hoisted to an altitude of 12,324 feet and released.

“Up until that point, everyone kind of takes a breath and then watches it happen,” Benzin told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann. “You’re always a little bit nervous before you’re actually doing a test like this because you think you’ve done all the work and testing to make it happen and successful, but you never really know until right when you push the button.”

dream chaser in hangar Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The 30-foot craft then made a completely autonomous descent and landing on an Edwards Air Force Base runway north of Los Angeles.

flight crew prepares dream chaser 2 Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Unlike other spacecraft that splashdown in oceans or touchdown in faraway deserts, the Dream Chaser’s successful test flight proved it can gently land on a runway.

“By doing that it makes things a lot simpler,” Mark Sirangelo, Corporate Vice President of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said. “It keeps what’s on board a lot safer, and it also allows us to take that valuable experiment and take it to where it needs to go as quickly as possible.”

dream chaser fuzzy dice Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Saturday’s 60-second free flight brought Sierra Nevada Corp. another step closer to achieving unmanned cargo flights to and from the International Space Station.

Those missions could begin as early as 2020.

“This allows us to take up to about 10,000 pounds of cargo to the space station, and really importantly, bring home the science that’s up there. Right now it’s a big problem because we can’t get all the science that’s up there down.”

The Dream Chaser has been in development by Sierra Nevada Corp. for more than 10 years. It has been significantly upgraded since its previous free flight in 2013 which ended with a mishap when its left main landing gear did not deploy properly.

dream chaser crew secures vehicle after successful test Dream Chaser Proves To Be Dream Come True For Colorado Engineers

(credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

Orbital flights will be made by a space-capable version of the Dream Chaser that will be launched atop a booster rocket. Sierra Nevada has selected Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 to launch the first two cargo missions, scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida and land at Kennedy Space Center.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team as the morning reporter in 2012. After serving as weekend morning anchor, Kelly is now Covering Colorado First for CBS4 News at 10. Connect with Kelly on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @KellyCBS4.

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