Mojave (AFP) Sep 29, 2004
SpaceShipOne, piloted by South African-born Michael Melvill, 62, reached an altitude of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers), organizers said, putting it halfway to winning the prize put up by a private foundation seeking to boost space travel.
The judging committee for the Ansari X Prize said the rocketship reached 337,500 feet (101,250 meters), beyond the 328,000 feet (98,400 meters) considered the edge of space. The figure remained subject to verification from equipment at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
To win the prize, a manned, reusable spacecraft must be sent into space twice within two weeks. A second flight is expected on Monday.
Dressed in a black jumpsuit and standing on top of the stubby rocket plane after a smooth-as-glass landing at this former US military air base in the California desert, Melvill declared it a "near-perfect flight."
"Now that was fun," he said. "I really feel like I nailed it.
"I was very, very pleased with how the vehicle behaved," he said, playing down the more-than-two-dozen corkscrew rolls performed near the top of the ascent.
"I wasn't worried about it," Melvill said. "Probably I stamped on something too quickly and caused the roll.
"A victory roll at the top is important to a pilot," he quipped.
SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan said technicians would examine the roll before going ahead with Monday's flight. "We will be analyzing why we got the roll," he said. "Will it delay the flight on Monday? We don't know that yet."
Melvill said he did not expect to be at the controls for the next flight. "I'm too old to be doing this," he said.
SpaceShipOne ignited its rocket engines after being dropped from a specially adapted jet called White Knight at an altitude of some 47,000 feet (15 kilometers) and blasted off toward space, attaining speeds up to Mach 3.5.
Melvill said he shut down the engines 11 seconds ahead of schedule when he realized he had reached the required altitude "with room to spare."
White Knight, the jet carrying SpaceShipOne on its belly, took off from a Mojave Desert air base at 7:11 am (1411 GMT).
SpaceShipOne separated from the jet just before 8:10 am (1510 GMT), ignited its rocket engine to reach space and glided to a landing at this airbase littered with the hulks of passenger planes at 8:34 am (1534 GMT).
Rutan and his company Scaled Composites joined with Microsoft founder Paul Allen and his firm Vulcan to form the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team behind SpaceShipOne, which carried out a successful test flight on June 21 with Melvill at the controls.
The Ansari foundation put up the 10-million-dollar prize eight years ago to give the same impetus to space travel that the Orteig prize did to inspire Charles Lindbergh's first transatlantic flight in 1927.
The winning vessel must carry the pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers.
There are 26 vehicles in contention for the Ansari prize, but SpaceShipOne is far ahead of the others.
Rutan expects SpaceShipOne will attract a lot of investment to the sector and that in a few years people will be able to buy tickets for sub-orbital flights.
The flight is taking place just two days after Rutan and British tycoon Richard Branson announced a tie-up to start a "galactic" airline aimed at eventual commercial space travel.
Rutan sat by Branson's side in London on Monday when the British founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways announced he had signed a 14-million-pound (25-million-dollar) accord with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to set up Virgin Galactic, the first company to offer trips into space for the general public.
The project will use technology based on SpaceShipOne, and Branson has predicted the first flights could take off in three years.
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