MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — A stubby private rocket plane blasted through Earth’s atmosphere for a second time in a week yesterday, capturing a $10 million prize meant to encourage space tourism.
A crowd of thousands of enthusiasts on the ground began celebrating as soon as unofficial reports said SpaceShipOne had climbed more than 62 miles — generally considered to be the point at which Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins.
“This is the true frontier of transportation,” said Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who stood near the runway. “It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have.”
The rocket plane, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, took off from a desert runway slung to the belly of a carrier plane. It was released at about 46,000 feet, and test pilot Brian Binnie fired its rockets to continue to the edge of space at three times the speed of sound.
The mother craft and chase planes did flyovers for spectators before landing. SpaceShipOne returned about 90 minutes after leaving the ground.
“Let me say I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible,” Mr. Binnie said after landing and receiving a hug of congratulationsfrom his wife. “And I really mean that. There’s no place on Earth that you can take this flag and take it up to space.”
About an hour after SpaceShipOne landed, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced that SpaceShipOne’s team had claimed the prize, awarded for the first privately built, manned rocket ship to fly in space two times in a span of two weeks.
Word of Mr. Binnie’s accomplishment was relayed from mission control to the two persons aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Mike Fincke and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.
“Fantastic,” Mr. Fincke said, adding that it was great to learn that for a while yesterday he and Mr. Padalka weren’t “the only ones off the planet.”
The choice of Mr. Binnie as pilot was kept secret until hours before the scheduled takeoff. Last week, SpaceShipOne rolled dozens of times with Michael Melvill at the wheel.
Mr. Melvill also flew the first flight by a private plane into space on June 21, and he was awarded the nation’s first commercial-astronaut wings by the FAA.
After a safety analysis, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan posted this weekend on his Web site preliminary information about last week’s flight to address what he called the “incorrect rumors” that have circulated.
The first roll occurred at a high speed, about Mach 2.7, but aerodynamic loads on the spacecraft were low and decreasing rapidly “so the ship never saw any significant structural stresses,” he said.
Mr. Diamandis, who founded the X Prize eight years ago, hoped it would have the same effect on space travel as the Orteig Prize had on air travel. Charles Lindbergh claimed that $25,000 prize in 1927 after making his solo trans-Atlantic flight.
Major funding came from the Ansari family of Dallas. More than two dozen teams around the world were trying to win the prize, but only SpaceShipOne has reached space.
Last week, Richard Branson, the British airline mogul and adventurer, announced that, beginning in 2007, he will begin offering to paying customers flights into space aboard rockets like SpaceShipOne. He plans to call the service Virgin Galactic.