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Private spaceship tests underway in Va, Calif

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A Colorado company developing a spaceship to take astronauts to the International Space Station is having elements of its spacecraft undergo landing-related tests at NASA facilities in Virginia and California.

NASA wants private firms to ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit so it can focus on deep-space exploration and send crews to a nearby asteroid and eventually Mars.

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser vehicle is designed to carry seven people and land like a plane, unlike the capsules two other companies are working on. The spacecraft is based on an old design by researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Astronauts are using a flight simulator at the Langley facility to simulate what it would be like to land the Dream Chaser at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. in a variety of atmospheric conditions. The tests are scheduled to last through Friday and will also include evaluations of the spacecraft's guidance and navigation performance. The simulation involves the final 10,000 feet and 60 seconds of a future Dream Chaser flight.

The Louisville, Colo.-based company has also delivered a Dream Chaser engineering test craft to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.

Among other things, NASA says the tests there will involve a truck towing the craft down a runway to validate the performance of the craft's nose strut, brakes and tires. A free-flight test later this year will measure Dream Chaser's aerodynamics through landing.

Sierra Nevada is one of three companies chosen by NASA to develop spaceships to take over the job of the now-retired space shuttle. NASA had hoped to begin using commercial spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015, but a lack of funding by Congress has pushed that date back to 2017. Until then, the U.S. is reliant on expensive rides from Russia to get its astronauts to the space station.

Speaking with reporters at Langley Research Center last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said if that Congress doesn't agree to the Obama administration's 2014 budget request for $821 million in seed money for the commercial crew program, that date could move even further back.

"If we don't fund it, they can't come in on time and I'll be writing another contract with the Russians, and I don't want to do that," Bolden said.

In April, NASA announced that its latest contract with the Russian Space Agency was valued at about $424 million. That's $70.6 million per seat — well above the previous price tag of about $65 million.

The other companies developing commercial spaceships are the Boeing Co. of Houston and Space Exploration Technologies, asl known as SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.

SpaceX is also one of two companies already under contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. It plans to modify the Dragon capsule it's been using to deliver and return cargo from the space station so it can also deliver astronauts.

The company has said it can have people flying on a modified Dragon by 2015.

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Online: NASA commercial crew program www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/index.html

Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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