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Space This Week

Last Monday, the private "SpaceShipOne" rocket soared into space for the second time in less than a week to win the $10 million X Prize and smash a four decade old altitude record for a winged aircraft.

Pilot Brian Binnie took the small space plane up to 111-kilometers above California's Mojave desert before gliding back to earth.

After the flight, Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne, indicated that a similar design could safely take tourists into space. "What you've seen here is a research and development program to look at new ideas on how manned spacecraft can really be significantly safer,." said Mr. Rutan. "And that is with this new type of hybrid motor, which is significantly safer. And that is with our feathered re-entry, which is significantly safer way to fly to space. And there will be new ideas out there. And I believe that coming right out of the bat, the first space tourism business will be considerably safer than the original airliners that started flying people a long time ago."

If that sounds like a dig at NASA, which has lost two of its expensive space shuttles in catastrophic accidents, it wouldn't be the first time Mr. Rutan has criticized the U.S. space agency.

Also present after the flight was Richard Branson, the man behind Virgin Atlantic Airlines and a newly-formed company called Virgin Galactic, which plans to do space tourism.

Astronauts on the International Space Station, Commander Gennady Padalka and Science Officer Mike Fincke are getting some company this week. The two men have been in space for about 10 months now. In a press conference from orbit, Mike Fincke described the view from the space station:

"Our planet is so beautiful. People used to ask me what my favorite was, and I'd always say Mars or even the Moon," said the astronaut. "But now it's definitely planet Earth. We've looked at hurricanes, we've looked in their eyes. We've flown over the pyramids of Egypt, cruised through the Amazon River, looked down on the Himalayas. I mean there's just so many beautiful things as the cities that humans have built, the islands in the middle of the ocean, and I don't think any machine can really capture what we can see with our eyes."

Their replacement crew, known as Expedition 10, is set to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan next Wednesday, with arrival at the space station two days later.

Astronauts Fincke and Padalka are due to return to earth on two weeks from today.

And one of the first humans in space died this week. L. Gordon Cooper was the youngest of the Mercury astronauts who flew the cramped capsules that were Amerca's first space vehicles. In 1963 his Mercury 9, was the last in that series. He flew again on a Gemini flight in 1964. Those program led the way to the Apollo Moon landings. Gordon Cooper, who died of natural causes in California at age 77, was only the 10th man in space, preceeded by five other Americans and four Soviet Cosmonauts. In a tribute this week, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a statement that astronaut L. Gordon Cooper "truly portrayed the right stuff."