The privately-funded craft SpaceShipOne has completed a flight into space after an airborne launch above the California desert. The flight will bring the spaceship crew the $10 million X Prize. The project is being hailed as the start of a new space age.
The combination rocket ship and glider was carried aloft at dawn beneath a carrier airplane. At 14,000 meters, it was released to fire its engines. Thirty minutes later, pilot Brian Binnie brought SpaceShipOne to earth.
The ship was doused with champagne in a runway celebration, and pilot Binnie offered some patriotic words to cheering onlookers.
"I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible," he said.
The team will recoup $10 million of its development costs when it claims the Ansari X prize, an initiative to promote space tourism. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis made the win official just after the craft landed.
"It is our pleasure to announce today in Mojave, California, that SpaceShipOne has made two flights to 100 kilometers, and has won the Ansari X Prize," he said. "Congratulations."
X Prize rules required two trips to the edge of space within a two-week period, with a pilot and ballast equal to the weight of two passengers, 180 kilograms. The crew performed the task twice in five days.
Aerospace designer Burt Rutan developed SpaceShipOne. It is one of dozens of efforts around the world to develop private craft the space industry. He is now working on a larger ship that will seat five passengers, under contract with Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways. Mr. Branson hopes to ferry tourists to space by 2007.
Tickets will be expensive at first, costing $200,000. Later, says Mr. Rutan, the price will go down. His challenge, he says, is to develop a craft that is safe, and he pledges to do it.
"I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system for Sir Richard Branson that's at least 100 times safer than anything we have ever flown manned to space, and probably a lot more," he said. "I have to do that."
Virgin chief Branson, on hand for Monday's flight, called it "a magnificent achievement."
SpaceShipOne is barely larger than a private airplane. Its unique hybrid engine burns rubber and nitrous oxide. Financial backer Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was also on hand for the flight, and he called it an "incredible feat of technology."
"This is amazing. This is rocket science, OK," he said. "This is real first-class, top-line rocket science executed to an incredible degree of precision, and this flight couldn't have been any smoother."
Monday's flight was the third by SpaceShipOne past the edge of space. Pilot Mike Melvill was awarded civilian astronaut wings June 21 for the ship's first spaceflight. Last Wednesday, he made his second space flight, the first of two required for the X Prize.