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Team Prepares for 1st Private Manned Spacecraft - 2004-06-21

Early Monday, a private team will try to send a human into space after launch from an aircraft high above the California desert. The team hopes to send a manned rocket 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, achieving the first private space flight. If it is successful, this will be the first manned flight not sponsored by a government to leave the earth's atmosphere.

At 6:30 Monday morning, a support aircraft called White Knight will take off with the rocket called SpaceShipOne attached to it, says spokesman Michael Nank. "At about 7:30, an hour later, the rocket will decouple from White Knight and burn for approximately 80 seconds for it to reach the 100 kilometer mark. "

After a vertical climb, the pilot will enter the blackness of space and be weightless for just a few minutes. The spacecraft -- part glider, part rocket -- will then re-enter the atmosphere, and spend about 30 minutes gliding back to the desert airport.

The project is funded by high tech investor Paul Allen, who has reportedly spent $20 million on the effort. Burt Rutan, who created Voyager, a lightweight aircraft that flew around the world in 1986, led the design team for SpaceShipOne . He told reporters Sunday the flight may signal a change, opening space to private investors.

"The new private space entrepreneurs have a vision. I'm one of them," he says. "We do want our children to go to the planets. We are willing to seek breakthroughs by taking risks. And if the business-as-usual space developers continue their decades-long pace, they will be gazing from the slow lane as we speed into the new space age, this time not for prestige, but this time to fulfill people's dreams."

The designer admits the endeavor is risky, but says the risk was even greater on a test flight May 13, when SpaceShipOne reached a height of nearly 65 kilometers. The pilot on the test flight, 62-year-old Mike Melvill, will be at the controls again on Monday.