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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
September 29, 2004
SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane aiming to win the $10m Ansari X-Prize, has completed the first of two qualifying flights above the Californian desert.
The vehicle blasted straight up over Mojave Airport and started to roll just before its engine shut down.

But the craft's experienced pilot Mike Melvill managed to regain control and brought SpaceShipOne safely back down.

Two unofficial radar readings revealed the craft had passed the 100km boundary of space required under the prize rules.

The Ansari X-Prize was set up to galvanise the commercial spaceflight business. It is hoped the competition will eventually kick-start a new age of space tourism with ordinary people buying tickets to go on short, sub-orbital hops.

Flight hitch

The X-Prize organisers will not be able to confirm the altitude until readings recorded on equipment inside SpaceShipOne are also evaluated.

Mr Melvill told the gathered crowd that the flight had been "fun" and that he felt he had really "nailed it".

SpaceShipOne spun after separation from White Knight
But he said the craft had surprised him with its "little victory roll", and he had shut down the engines 11 seconds prematurely as a result.

"Did I plan the roll? I'd like to say I did but I didn't," Melvill explained.

"You're extremely busy at that point. Probably I stepped on something too quickly and caused the roll but it's nice to do a roll at the top of the climb."

To claim the prize, SpaceShipOne must now repeat the flight once more within two weeks. A second launch has been scheduled for next Monday, 4 October.

SpaceShipOne became the first private, manned craft to go above 100km in a June test flight.

Both SpaceShipOne and the White Knight plane which ferries it to its launch altitude were designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan and backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Both men welcomed Mr Melvill as he emerged from the rocket plane.

Mr Rutan said that until the team had analysed flight data, he would not know whether the roll experienced by SpaceShipOne near the top of its flight would delay Monday's attempt.

"They made the altitude," he said. But speaking of the corkscrew ascent, he added: "I was worried about that because that's not the way it was supposed to be."

Paying passengers

June's record-breaking test flight had also experienced a rolling problem. Some "anomalies" had occurred with the craft which had led Rutan's team to make minor technical alterations to the vehicle.

The X-Prize is for sub-orbital flights - short journeys in which weightlessness is experienced for just a few minutes as the craft falls back to Earth.

Already, one millionaire is looking to the future by offering a $50m reward for the first private orbiting spacecraft. This would allow for much longer trips into space lasting hours and perhaps even days.

On Monday this week, the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said he would be offering commercial spaceflights in about three years using Mr Rutan's SpaceShipOne technology.

The virgin spaceliners should be able to carry five passengers to 100km.

A rival X-Prize team, the Toronto-based Space Program, which was formerly called the daVinci project, has put back its stab at the prize. The team had been scheduled for a first launch on 2 October.

Team leader Brian Feeney said the delay was necessary to allow more time to work with a pressure vessel for the Wild Fire spacecraft, as well a few other minor components.


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