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Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - SpaceShipOne lands after heart-stopping ride - Sep 29, 2004 - SpaceShipOne lands after heart-stopping ride - Sep 29, 2004

Private manned spacecraft returns from wild ride
One down for SpaceShipOne to win $10 million X Prize
By Michael Coren
MOJAVE DESERT, California (CNN) -- SpaceShipOne successfully blasted into space at about Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, above the California desert on Wednesday in its quest to win the Ansari X Prize.

It touched down in a smooth landing about 11:35 a.m. ET, completing a successful flight despite nail-biting moments.

The spacecraft encountered problems shortly after the rocket ignited during its vertical ascent. It unexpectedly began a series of more than 20 barrel rolls.

It was not clear why the craft lost manuvering control. As SpaceShipOne turned groundward, however, pilot Mike Melvill regained control and steadied the craft.

"The trajectory was good, the roll was off," said Dick Rutan, a test pilot and brother of Burt Rutan, the SpaceShipOne designer. "I was worried. That wasn't the way it was supposed to be."

An official altitude for SpaceShipOne of 358,000 feet -- well in excess of 62.9 miles (100 km) -- was recorded by radar at the site.

This marks the first of two successful flights the team needs to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

SpaceShipOne lifted off from a runway in the Mojave Desert in California, at 10:12 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The revolutionary spacecraft, the first privately financed vehicle to send humans into space, made its first of two qualifying flights in order to claim the prize.

The plane White Knight carried SpaceShipOne, attached beneath it, to about 50,000 feet where the spacecraft detached and rocketed into space.

To win the contest, privately financed spacecraft must launch three people, or their weight equivalent, to space twice within two weeks.

SpaceShipOne carried only the pilot, Melvill, on Wednesday's flight.

The second flight, which must reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, is scheduled for October 4.

Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites designed and tested the rocket during a June 21 suborbital flight.

Despite control system malfunctions, the flight was a success and made Melvill, 63, the first person to earn his astronaut wings aboard a private spacecraft.

Melvill told reporters he had "a hell of a view from 62 miles."

"The colors were pretty staggering from up there," he said. "It's an awesome thing to see. You can see the curvature of the Earth."

The aerodynamics of SpaceShipOne were slightly modified and the power of its engine was increased for this flight.

Rutan said the first spaceflight had brought the world closer to realizing his long-held dream of easy access to space.

"Our hope is that this will be a benchmark ... for a lot more people to not only have fun but to reap the benefits that we believe might be there," said Rutan.

SpaceShipOne is competing with more than two dozen other teams for the X Prize. The only one to challenge SpaceShipOne to the finish line, the da Vinci project of Canada, recently canceled its October 2 flight for a lack of crucial components. The team said its balloon-launched spacecraft would still make an attempt.

The Ansari X Prize -- modeled on aviation awards at the beginning of the 20th century -- is designed to spur the private sector into building a space tourism industry.

Market studies suggest there may be a multibillion demand for such flights to the edge of space and, eventually, into orbit around the Earth. At least one entrepreneur is plunging headfirst into the businesses.

Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson announced on Monday that he would invest $25 million in a new space venture, to be called Virgin Galactic. The project will license Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne technology for commercial suborbital flights starting at about $200,000. He expects it could fly 3,000 people within five years.

"The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few," he said.

Today's flight will take off from a remote airstrip in the Mojave Desert. It is the only civilian test flight center and just one of a handful of spaceports.


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