- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

A rocket plane flown by a 62-year-old pilot soared more than 62 miles above Earth yesterday before gliding back safely to a runway in California’s Mojave Desert in the first privately financed manned spaceflight.

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” test pilot Michael W. Melvill said in a televised news briefing after his venture into space. “The Earth is so beautiful.”

Seeing Earth from outside the atmosphere was “almost a religious experience,” said Mr. Melvill, who reached an altitude of 328,491 feet or 62.21 miles, about 10 times as high as commercial jetliners fly, according to radar data. It took off at 6:45 a.m. PDT and landed at 8:15 a.m.

Those behind the mission of the three-seat rocket plane, known as SpaceShipOne, say it was designed to show the viability of commercial spaceflight and should open the door for space tourism.

SpaceShipOne, which was attached to a jet-powered plane for the first hour of the flight, was built with funding by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, who said only that the project cost more than $20 million.

The spaceship and mother plane, the White Knight, were designed and built by Scaled Composites, a California company owned by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, an aircraft designer committed to the notion that spaceflight is not just the purview of government.

Mr. Rutan gained international fame by designing the Voyager aircraft, which flew around the world nonstop without refueling in 1986.

“Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard’s epic flights in 1961, all space missions have been flown only under large, expensive government efforts. By contrast, our program involves a few dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making spaceflight affordable,” Mr. Rutan said.

Mr. Rutan said the mission was cut back from its planned 360,000 feet (more than 68 miles) because of a steering problem.

“It was no big deal in terms of safety, but it was not a smooth flight in terms of trajectory,” he said. “The fact that our backup system worked and we made a beautiful landing makes me feel very good.”

Mr. Melvill said he heard a loud bang during the flight. He pointed to the rear of SpaceShipOne, where a part of the structure covering the nozzle had buckled, and suggested that this might have been the source of the noise.

SpaceShipOne will attempt another flight within the next two weeks, as it is now the leading contender for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which goes to the first privately financed three-seat aircraft that reaches an altitude of 62 miles and repeats the feat within two weeks.

The three-seat requirement is made to demonstrate the capacity for paying passengers on the spaceship, and the quick turnaround between flights is to demonstrate the craft’s reusability and reliability.

“Every time SpaceShipOne flies, we demonstrate that relatively modest amounts of private funding can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology,” Mr. Allen said.

Because Mr. Melvill unofficially became an astronaut through his flight into space, Federal Aviation Administration representative Patricia Grace Smith presented him with the agency’s first commercial astronaut wings.

Suborbital spaceflight refers to a mission that flies out of Earth’s atmosphere but does not reach the speeds needed to orbit the planet.

The view from a suborbital flight is similar to being in orbit, as pilot and passengers experience weightlessness and see the black sky and the blue atmospheric line on the horizon. But the cost and risks are far less than orbital travel, Scaled Composites said.

Sean O’Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, applauded the “remarkable achievement” and said the team is opening the door to the “experiences of suborbital flight and weightlessness to the public.”

Mr. Melvill got a firsthand look at weightlessness in space, and was awed when he opened a bag of M&M; candies and watched the chocolates float around the cockpit.

“It was so cool,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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