Private craft soars into space, history
MOJAVE, California (CNN) -- SpaceShipOne left the Earth behind on Monday morning and made its indelible entry in the history books as the first private spacecraft to carry humans into space. It touched down safely at Mojave Airport at 11:15 ET.
"It looks great," said Burt Rutan, chief of Scaled Composites, which built the craft. He gave a thumbs up on the runway as he squinted into the sun at the aircraft he designed.
At 10:51 ET, Mike Melvill ignited the rocket engines and piloted SpaceShipOne into the blackness of space. His trajectory took him more than 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above Earth's atmosphere, according to Scaled Composites flight officials.
"It was a mind-blowing experience, it really was -- absolutely an awesome thing," Melvill said after landing.
The rocket plane lifted off about 9:45 ET carried by the jet White Knight for an hourlong ascent.
At 10:35 ET, it reached 33,000 feet and the pilot reported all systems checked out for its space launch. It received clearance to land and "go for light" -- the signal to begin launch countdown -- at 10:46 ET. The pair approached 50,000 feet a few minutes later and SpaceShipOne decoupled from the jet. After a brief glide, Melvill ignited the engines and ascended at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound, into space.
From the cockpit, the curvature of the Earth and a thin blue line that demarcates our atmosphere was visible against the black sky. Melvill, the first astronaut to pilot a private spacecraft, maneuvered the plane for descent on the same runway it departed nearly two hours earlier.
The flight marks the pinnacle of Rutan's vision of affordable, safe private space travel. His company Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne with financial backing from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, for a little more than $20 million. From just a concept in 1995 to reality less than a decade later, Rutan said this was the realization of a long dream..
"I'm so proud of that, it brings tears to my eyes," he said.
The remote desert Mojave airport, home to the world's only civilian test flight center and a licensed spaceport, was also host to an assortment of vehicles that converged on the site from around the country.
Buses, RVs, electric scooters, small ultralights and a menagerie of other vehicles were parked in the sandy soil across from the runway.
A sense of historic anticipation was shared by many of the spectators. Some said that after waiting decades, they were finally witnessing the first steps toward spaceflight for them.
Josh Collins, 25, said he had flown from Maryland to see the attempt.
"Some people thought I was crazy, other people are jealous," he said. "I can't wait to see the launch. It's going to be historic."
Melvill, 62, a veteran test pilot, becomes the first civilian flier to earn his astronaut's wings aboard a privately financed spacecraft.
The rocket plane made its farthest and fastest flight to date.
Scaled Composites is one of 24 companies from several countries competing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which will go to the first privately funded group to send three people on a suborbital flight 62.5 miles (100.6 kilometers) high and repeat the feat within two weeks using the same vehicle.
The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is sponsoring the contest to promote the development of a low-cost, efficient craft for space tourism in the same way prize competitions stimulated commercial aviation in the early 20th century.
The prize is fully funded through January 1, 2005, according to the foundation's Web site.
With Melvill on board, Monday's flight tested SpaceShipOne's ability to reach the 62.5-mile altitude, which is the internationally agreed-upon boundary of space.
The significance of the launch was hailed during a news conference Sunday at the Mojave launch site by two of the project's most enthusiastic backers: Rutan and Allen.
"Tomorrow we will meet to add one more page to the history books," Allen said Sunday. "[Private space flight] will undoubtedly lead to unprecedented new endeavors in the years to come."
Both men said they expected the technology to lead to a human space flight industry financed by the private sector.
Allen has invested more than $20 million in Scaled Composites to create the manned program -- a fraction of what government-sponsored efforts have cost.
Rutan predicted that the small investment would be just a start.
"Spaceflight is not only for governments to do," Rutan said. "Clearly, there's an enormous pent-up hunger to fly into space and not just dream about it."
He hesitated to give a precise prediction when a major tourism industry would develop. But he said that within 10 to 15 years affordable suborbital flights would become a reality, and it wouldn't stop there.
"We are heading to orbit sooner than you think," he said. "We do not intend to stay in low-earth orbit for decades. The next 25 years will be a wild ride. ... One that history will note was done for the benefit of everyone."