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Science & Space

Private craft soars into space, history

By Michael Coren
CNN

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Pilot Michael Melvill called the flight a 'mind-blowing experience.'

SpaceShipOne lands safely in the Mojave Desert.

The first privately funded spacecraft lifts off from an airstrip in the Mojave Desert.
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MOJAVE, California (CNN) -- The man who became the first person to pilot a privately built craft into space called his flight "almost a religious experience" after his safe landing Monday morning.

Test pilot Mike Melvill landed at Mojave Airport, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, California, after taking the rocket plane SpaceShipOne to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) -- the internationally recognized boundary of space.

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

"The colors were pretty staggering from up there," he said.

"Looking from the Earth up there, you know, it's almost a religious experience. It's an awesome thing to see. You can see the curvature of the Earth. I could see all the way out, way out past the islands off the coast of Los Angeles."

SpaceShipOne lifted off early Monday morning in the Mojave Desert, carried by the jet White Knight.

As the pair approached 50,000 feet, SpaceShipOne decoupled from the jet. After a brief glide, Melvill ignited the spacecraft's engines and ascended into space at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.

Melvill said once he reached weightlessness, he opened a bag of M&M's in the cockpit, and the candies floated for three minutes while the ship soared high above California.

Problems cut flight short

The spacecraft returned safely, but control problems revealed after the flight forced Melville to cut it short and use a backup system to keep SpaceShipOne under control.

He said trim surfaces on SpaceShipOne -- movable surfaces on the craft's wings -- jammed during supersonic flight. The craft rolled 90 degrees twice during its vertical ascent and veered more than 20 miles off course in a few seconds.

"Right at top, I tried to trim the nose up, that's when I had the anomaly and had to switch to backup," he said. The craft peaked at 328,491 feet (100.12 kilometers), just 408 feet (124 meters) above the international boundary of space, according to Scaled Composites.

The trim surfaces were reconfigured for landing and then remained unused as Melvill guided SpaceShipOne back to a comfortable landing.

"It was a pretty smooth ride after that," he said. "I headed back to Mojave as fast as I could without reasonably hurting anything."

A loud bang Melvill heard during the flight appeared to be a nonessential part of the composite airframe buckling near the rocket nozzle. The slight indention in SpaceShipOne's exterior did not affect the craft's performance.

Melvill, 63, picked up the nation's first pair of commercial astronaut's wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We have opened the frontier of human space flight," said Pattie Grace Smith of the FAA. "It's a major step ushering in a new era of low-cost space flight ... in reach of ordinary citizens."

The flight marks the pinnacle so far of Burt Rutan's vision of affordable, safe, private space travel.

Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, built SpaceShipOne with financial backing from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., for a little more than $20 million. Rutan said the flight, which went from a concept in 1995 to reality less than a decade later, was the realization of a long dream.

"I'm so proud of that, it brings tears to my eyes," he said.

The rocket plane made its farthest and fastest flight to date.

Rutan said he would not speculate about the problems until technical data had been reviewed, something he expected in the next few days.

"The anomaly we had today was the most serious safety system problem we've had in the entire program," he said. "The fact that our backup system worked and we made a beautiful landing ... makes me feel very good."

Melvill, who has tested Rutan's planes extensively, reaffirmed Rutan's engineering skills and commitment to safety.

"That's why we are so good at what we do," Melvill said. "We cover all the bases."

A prelude to future flights

Those on hand for the launch included officials from NASA, the FAA, the X Prize Foundation and the Guinness Book of Records.

Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize, the $10 million award intended to spur civilian spaceflight, said Rutan's vision would open the door for those with the same dream.

"This is a warm-up for the Ansari X Prize, but it's a historic moment for all Americans," he said. "[I've heard], 'If God wanted us to fly into space, he would have given us more money'. Hopefully, the technology demonstrated here today will lead to designs that are cheaper and easier."

Scaled Composites is one of 24 companies from several countries competing for the X Prize, which will go to the first privately funded group to send three people on a suborbital flight 62.5 miles high and repeat the feat within two weeks using the same vehicle.

Rutan said SpaceShipOne would compete for the X Prize once the causes behind the anomalies had been resolved.

"We will be looking at all our data," he said. "We'll make a decision next few days."

After that, preparations for an official X Prize flight are finalized will take 60 days.

"This was not a perfect flight," Rutan said. "Then again a lot of these things you can do with a 60-day window and easily fix them."

The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is sponsoring the contest to promote the development of a low-cost, efficient craft for space tourism in the same way prize competitions stimulated commercial aviation in the early 20th century.

The prize is fully funded through January 1, 2005, according to the foundation's Web site.

Spectators witness history

The remote Mojave Airport, a licensed spaceport and the world's only civilian test flight center, also played host to an assortment of vehicles that converged on the site from around the country.

Buses, RVs, electric scooters, small ultralights and a variety of other vehicles were parked in the sandy soil across from the runway.

Many of the spectators said there was a feeling of history in the air. Some said that after waiting decades, they were finally witnessing the first steps toward spaceflight for them.

Josh Collins, 25, said he had flown from Maryland to see the attempt.

"Some people thought I was crazy, other people are jealous," he said.

Rutan mingled, talked and directed traffic with those who spent the night on the windy Mojave Desert floor across from the airstrip Sunday night. He saved one sign as a memento of the occasion: "SpaceShipOne; GovernmentZero".


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