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Private Spacecraft Makes Successful Trip to Space - 2004-09-29

The private spacecraft SpaceShipOne briefly entered space above the California desert Wednesday, completing the first of two qualifying flights for the $10 million X Prize. There were some nervous moments for spectators as the craft was on its way up, but it glided safely to a landing.

This was the second time the small craft and pilot Mike Melvill broke the 100 kilometer limit that marks the edge of space. June 21, he became the first non-government pilot to earn his astronaut wings. This time, Mr. Melvill completed the first of two flights for the Ansari X Prize.

The ship rolled repeatedly on it ascent, but pilot Melvill regained control to complete the entry into space and descent to a desert airport. He was greeted by a crowd of spectators.

SpaceShipOne was carried aloft just after dawn beneath a carrier airplane, then released to fire its rocket. The pilot told reporters that the space flight, while not perfect, was "comfortable" and "easy."

"You know, I came off the hooks [of the carrier plane], started the engine. The engine started up just like clockwork," said Mr. Melvill. "I started pulling back on the stick, and trimming a little bit, and the airplane just went straight up. I couldn't believe how straight it was going."

He said the later rolling was not a serious problem. He said it may have resulted from pilot error, not from a design flaw in the craft from designer Burt Rutan.

"At the top, we got a little bit of a rolling motion going, but I think it looks good for the crowd if you can roll at the top of the climb," he added. "I think we did about 20 turns in roll, and there were some pretty high rates there, but Burt's designed a system that allowed me to stop the rates. I turned on the reaction jets and I stopped the rates. I brought it to a complete standstill in space."

X Prize rules require that the spacecraft carry the weight of two passengers to demonstrate it can ferry tourists into space twice within a two-week period. The tourists will come later. For now, the additional 180 kilograms came from weights and mementos from those involved with the mission, including photographs and Burt Rutan's slide rule calculator from college.

Teams from 26 countries are competing for the X Prize. A Canadian team has postponed a planned October 2nd launch, and Mr. Rutan's team hopes to clinch the prize in its second qualifying flight, which is scheduled for Monday.

The X Prize is named for Iranian American high tech entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, who made a multimillion-dollar contribution to spur private investment in space travel.

Mr. Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, teamed up with Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to develop SpaceShipOne, a small craft barely larger than a private airplane. Mr. Allen has spent more than $20 million on the project so far, and he thinks the results have been worth the investment. He says that Wednesday's flight offers a lesson.

"Follow your dreams. If you dream and if you go for your passion, you can make those dreams happen," he said.

An announcement Monday from British investor Richard Branson suggests the era of space tourism may not be far off. Mr. Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, has entered a licensing agreement for SpaceShipOne technology that could be worth some $21 million. His Virgin Group plans to offer space trips to paying passengers by 2007, and hopes to attract 3000 customers in its first five years.