Privately funded rocket reaches outer space

SpaceShipOne closer to $10 million prize after climbing 64 miles

September 30, 2004|By Peter Pae | Peter Pae,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOJAVE - The first privately funded rocket to reach space completed the first half of a $10 million flight competition yesterday by soaring to an altitude of 64 miles - but only after enduring a white-knuckle series of barrel rolls.

Pilot Mike Melvill appeared to lose control as SpaceShipOne spiraled like a corkscrew near the top of its vertical climb.

"It was a real good ride, but at the top I got a little surprise," Melvill said, standing atop the squid-like rocket after gliding to a landing here.

"It did a victory roll," he said of the unintended maneuver.

Built by innovative designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne climbed to 337,500 feet, nearly 10,000 feet beyond what is widely considered the boundary of space.

A second flight, which is required to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, is tentatively slated for Monday, pending a post-launch review scheduled to be completed by today.

The flight brought Rutan's team a step closer to winning the prize created to spur development of commercial space flights. It requires a vehicle with a pilot and two passengers or an equivalent weight to reach sub-orbit, or about 62 miles above earth, twice in two weeks.

Rutan said the rocket was loaded with team members' personal items, including the ashes of his deceased mother, to meet the required weight of two people, or about 400 pounds.

"One down, one to go," said Peter Diamandis, the Santa Monica businessman who created the prize. "If all goes well, we have a beginning of a new era."

There are 26 teams from seven countries vying for the prize, but SpaceShipOne is in the lead by a wide margin. A team from Canada, the Da Vinci Project, had hoped to launch its rocket Saturday but postponed its launch for two weeks, blaming a missing part. The team said it hopes to launch the rocket from a high-altitude balloon.

Yesterday's flight marked the second time that Rutan's rocket had reached space. In a June test flight, the rocket, under the controls of Melvill, climbed to 328,491 feet, or just past what is considered space's boundary.

It was the first time that a privately funded vehicle had reached sub-orbit. The Federal Aviation Administration also conferred its first commercial astronaut wings on the pilot, allowing him to join an elite cadre of pilots who have flown more than 50 miles above Earth.

Yesterday's flight came two days after British billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced he was launching a commercial space flight service using a larger version of the SpaceShipOne rocket.

Scheduled to begin service in 2007, the rocket would take up to five passengers to about 80 miles above Earth, where they would feel weightlessness and see the blue sky turn pitch black. The service, Virgin Galactic, would charge about $190,000 per person for the two-hour flight.

Rutan said during a post-flight news conference yesterday that the team had hoped to reach 360,000 feet, shattering the altitude record set by the X-15 winged rocket plane in the 1960s. "There was plenty of performance in this spaceship," Rutan said, adding that the team will be analyzing the flight data to figure out the cause of the roll.

But he added that it does not appear to be a serious problem.

Fewer people came out to see yesterday's flight, about 5,000 compared with 27,000 in June. But organizers expect a far larger crowd for the next attempt Monday.

Most in the sparse crowd were die-hard space enthusiasts, some of whom arrived at the airport as early as 3 a.m.

Roy Mooneyham, a Santa Monica resident and a Verizon telephone technician, brought along a specially made binocular tripod that allowed him to follow the rocket as it climbed.

"I think it's very exciting. It's like watching the Wright brothers," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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