A California team has achieved the first manned space flight by a commercial venture, an event being hailed as an aviation milestone. Pilot Mike Melvill completed the flight Monday, becoming the world's first commercial astronaut.
His ship, called SpaceShipOne, took off into the glare of the sun rising over the desert. It was perched below a jet aircraft.
Then the spacecraft fired its engine, and soared straight up. It entered the blackness of space for just a few minutes.
However, the pilot said the craft suffered a failure in its stabilization system, which put it slightly off course for a time in the upper atmosphere. "We had a backup for that system. I went to the backup and the backup saved the day," he said.
Pilot and craft broke the limit of 100 kilometers that determines the edge of space, traveling past it by just 124 meters.
In the weightless environment, pilot Mike Melvill took a short break from his arduous flight tasks. "I reached in my pocket, and I took out some candy-coated chocolates, all different colors, and I let them go in front of my face. And they just spun around, little sparkling things. And I was so blown away I couldn't even fly the airplane," he said.
He described the view from the cabin. "The sky was jet black above, and it gets very light blue along the horizon. The earth is so beautiful, the colors of the earth, the colors of the high desert, and along the coastline. And all that fog or low stratus that's over L.A. looked exactly like snow. The glinting and gleaming of the sun on that low cloud looked to me exactly like snow. And it was really an awesome sight," he said.
The pilot, 63, already held speed and altitude records. After the flight, a U.S. aviation official handed him the first commercial astronaut wings ever awarded.
SpaceShipOne was designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who spent more than $20 million on the project. Both say the flight is a milestone in commercial space travel. Mr. Rutan says he envisions an orbiting space hotel, with suborbital crafts like his offering paying passengers the thrill of space travel.