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Dryden hosted the Theseus program, providing hangar space and range safety for flight testing. Aurora Flight Sciences was responsible for the actual flight testing, vehicle flight safety, and operation of the aircraft.
The Theseus remotely piloted aircraft flew its maiden flight on May 24, 1996 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. According to John Del Frate, Dryden's Theseus Project Manager, "Not only is the first flight significant, but the challenge associated with the entire operation exposes NASA and Aurora to important issues which need to be worked and developed as this new class of air vehicles transitions from experimental to commonplace."
Theseus was built for NASA under an innovative, $4.9 million fixed-price contract by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, Manassas, Virginia, and its partners, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Fairmont State College, Fairmont, West Virginia.
The twin-engine, unpiloted vehicle has a 140-foot wingspan, and was constructed largely from composite materials. Powered by two 80-horsepower, turbocharged piston engines that drove twin 9-foot diameter propellers, Theseus was designed to fly autonomously at high altitudes, with takeoff and landing under the active control of a ground-based pilot in a ground control station "cockpit."
With the potential ability to carry 700 pounds of science instruments to altitudes above 60,000 feet for durations of greater than 24 hours, Theseus was intended to support research in areas such as stratospheric ozone depletion and the atmospheric effects of future high-speed civil transport aircraft engines. Instruments carried aboard Theseus also would be able to validate satellite-based global environmental change measurements made by NASA's planned Earth Observing System.