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In Capital Venture, Rocket Reaches the Edge of Space

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Times Staff Writer

A piloted rocket released from a spider-like mother plane shot straight up into the desert sky here Thursday, climbing to 211,400 feet and becoming the first privately funded vehicle to reach the edge of space.

The SpaceShipOne rocket carried 62-year-old test pilot Mike Melvill to heights usually reached only by astronauts and military pilots.

The aviation milestone also propelled the aircraft’s designer, Burt Rutan, to the forefront in the race to win the $10-million Ansari X Prize, an unusual competition to spur development of commercial spaceflight.

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“You just can’t imagine what a thrill it was. I had tears in my eyes,” Rutan said as the winged rocket glided back to Earth and made a picture-perfect landing at the airport here. “It creates a path for the rest of us to go into space.”

Rutan’s team members called the trip the first private manned spaceflight, although the definition of where space begins varies considerably.

Rutan, a legend in the aerospace industry, has built pioneering aircraft including Voyager, which made the first nonstop flight around the world in 1986 without refueling.

So far, flying into space has been limited to astronauts and military pilots on space vehicles designed and funded by U.S., Russian or Chinese governments. Only two private individuals have reached space: Santa Monica businessman Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth, each of whom paid $20 million to ride in a Russian-built Soyuz.

But Rutan and others vying for the X Prize are hoping to open the way for commercial spaceflights in which the public could get a round-trip space fare for about $100,000 by 2020. It’s not cheap, but still far less than the nearly $60 million it currently costs NASA to send a single astronaut into space.

Rutan believes the price could drop even lower -- to about the same as a “two-week luxury cruise,” he said, adding that a passenger would spend about four minutes in space. The entire trip, from takeoff to gliding back to Earth, would last about 1 1/2 hours.

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“This is proof that a small group with a small budget can do what the government took decades and billions of dollars to do,” said Peter Diamandis, the creator of the X Prize.

Rutan, whose 130-employee company Scaled Composites built the rocket and the mother plane, declined to say how much he has spent developing the vehicles. But some analysts believe it is no more than $25 million, much of it financed by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen.

Scaled Composites, based at Mojave Airport, is one of two dozen teams from seven countries vying for the X Prize, which calls for launching a three-passenger craft to 328,000 feet twice within two weeks. The altitude is generally considered the boundary where space begins, although the Air Force gives pilots astronaut wings if they fly above 50 miles, or 264,000 feet.

The first team to complete the task by the end of this year wins $10 million, a purse set by the X Foundation, the St. Louis-based sponsor of the competition. The foundation’s donors include Tito, author Tom Clancy, Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, and John McDonnell, whose father formed the namesake aerospace company that eventually merged with Boeing Co.

Diamandis said he created the foundation to push development of private reusable manned launch vehicles. One key restriction is that the rocket must be built and operated without any government funds or involvement.

The prize is modeled after the Orteig Prize in the 1920s that offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. Charles Lindbergh won that prize, one of many at the time that bolstered advances in aircraft development in the early days of aviation.

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Only about a third of the teams have a legitimate chance of developing a reusable space vehicle, and the designs vary widely, Diamandis said. One team envisions launching a high-altitude balloon, from which a rocket will be launched. Another has reproduced the German V-2 rocket that terrorized England during World War II.

“Back in 1996 when the X Prize came out, lot of people thought this was nuts,” said Geoff Sheerin, the leader of the Canadian Arrow team, which expects to begin test launching its V-2-based rocket in August from a barge on Lake Huron. “Germans built 3,000 V-2s and they were very successful flying it, so we’re trying to duplicate it and take it one step further by putting people in it.”

With Thursday’s flight of SpaceShipOne, no other team has progressed as far as Rutan’s. Rutan said he hopes to go after the prize this summer.

“With today’s flight, much of the major technical challenges have been overcome,” he said. “It’s just a matter of going higher with more people.”

Rutan’s teardrop-shaped rocket was lofted to its launch position by its mother ship, a plane that could have easily been mistaken for a Vulcan warship from a “Star Trek” movie.

As the mother ship, named White Knight, reached 46,000 feet, it released the smaller winged rocket attached to its belly. The rocket fell for a few seconds before pilot Melvill ignited the engines, lurching it forward. He then steered the craft into a vertical climb.

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SpaceShipOne climbed for 55 seconds, the longest such ascent by a private manned rocket, before Melvill shut off the engine. The rocket continued upward for a few seconds, propelled by its own momentum.

After reaching its peak altitude of 211,400 feet, the rocket began a freefall, controlled only by specially designed vertical stabilizers that kept the vehicle upright.

As it fell, the rocket sped across the sky at more than twice the speed of sound, also a first for a private endeavor.

Once in the thicker atmosphere, Melvill began flying the rocket like a plane, gradually gliding it down to a landing at Mojave Airport in much the same way the space shuttle returns to Earth.

“I would give a million dollars to do it again,” said Melvill, a 35-year veteran of test flying Rutan aircraft.

“Watching the blue sky go completely black was the highlight of my career,” Melvill added as he described the view from his window at more than 200,000 feet.

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