- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — A test pilot in a stubby rocket plane will try to climb more than 60 miles over the Mojave Desert and punch through the atmosphere today in the first stage of a quest to win a $10 million prize meant to encourage space tourism.

SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first private, manned craft to reach space, was to make two attempts to rocket through the atmosphere in six days, less than half the 14-day span allowed under Ansari X Prize rules. The second flight is scheduled Monday.

Created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul G. Allen, SpaceShipOne is poised to take the prize sought by more than two dozen teams around the world.

Its closest competitor, a Canadian team with a balloon-launched rocket, scheduled its first flight for Saturday but then postponed it.

The X Prize, funded by the Ansari family of Dallas, was dreamed up nearly a decade ago as an incentive for development of commercial manned rockets that would make space flight a possibility for civilians.

It appears to have achieved that goal even before the first competitive flight.

Richard Branson, the airline mogul and adventurer, announced in London Monday that his Virgin Group plans to offer passenger flight into space by 2007 aboard rockets based on SpaceShipOne .

The plan calls for an investment of $108 million in spaceships and infrastructure for what will be called Virgin Galactic, with fares starting at $208,000. The company hopes to it will fly 3,000 people into space during its first five years.

SpaceShipOne is carried aloft, slung beneath the belly of a specially designed jet.

After the mothership climbs to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet, the spaceship is released into a glide for a few moments before its rocket motor ignites.

Ansari X Prize rules require that a spacecraft be capable of carrying three persons, but for the competition, it may be flown by a pilot and carry the weight equivalent of two other persons.

The exact cost of developing SpaceShipOne has not been revealed. Mr. Allen said that he has invested more than $20 million in the project.

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