Hopes for commercial space flights soar as SpaceShipOne glides safely back to Earth

Sixty-two miles above the sun-baked Mohave desert, the test pilot Mike Melvill could observe the curvature of the Earth. Seeing the planet from the edge of space was, he said, "almost a religious experience". The divine experience over, he opened a packet of M&Ms, released them into the gravity-reduced cockpit and started the long glide back to Earth.

It was more than a personal experience. Mr Melvill and his rocket plane SpaceShipOne made history yesterday when it became the first privately financed manned flight to reach space.

Aircraft and pilot touched down in the Californian desert at 8.15am local time (4.15pm London time) to applause and cheers. "Beautiful sight, Mike," the mission controllers told Mr Melvill as the gliding spaceship slowly circled toward its landing spot.

SpaceShipOne was carried to about 46,000 feet (13,800m), slung beneath another plane, White Knight. After an hour's climb, SpaceShipOne was released. Mr Melvill, 62, flipped a switch to arm his rocket engine, then a second switch to ignite it. The rocket fired, sending the craft in a steep climb. The top of its trajectory was confirmed later by radar at 62 miles.

Safely back on the tarmac, Mr Melvill enthused: "You got a hell of a view from 60, 62 miles. The flight was spectacular. Looking out that window, seeing the white clouds in the LA Basin, it looked like snow on the ground. As I got to the top I released a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit. It was amazing."

Mr Melvill reported no serious problems. He said, however, that during the flight he had heard a loud bang and wondered what it was. He pointed to the rear of the spacecraft where a part of the structure had buckled, suggesting it may have been the source of the noise.

The journey to the edge of space was, the organisers hope, a step on the way to the Ansari X prize, $10m (£5.5m) that will be awarded to the developers who are the first to send a three-seater aircraft 62 miles into the skies and then repeat the feat within two weeks.

It aims to encourage the development of commercial space flights. The organisers say the three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers, while the quick turnaround demonstrates reusability and reliability.

SpaceShipOne and White Knight were built by a team headed by the aircraft designer Burt Rutan, and the project was funded by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Mr Allen said the project had cost in excess of $20m.

He recently told The New York Times: "As a child I used to read everything I could about space travel. When any of us were growing up, [there] is some kind of underlying dream - to pursue these things when we're older and have a chance to be involved."

Mr Rutan described a similar outlook. "Clearly, there is an enormous, pent-up hunger to fly in space and not just dream about it," he told reporters before yesterday's flight. "Now I know what it was like to be involved in America's amazing race to the Moon in the Sixties." Mr Rutan won fame in the 1980s after he designed the Voyager aircraft, which flew around the world non-stop and without refuelling in 1986. He said he hoped the latest project showed that space flight was not just for governments.

"I believe that realisation will attract investment and that realisation will attract a whole bunch of activity and very soon it will be affordable for you to fly," he said.

Experts said that while the space shuttle, for example, required extensive computerised control mechanisms to maintain proper attitude as it returned to Earth, the inherent design of SpaceShipOne helped it maintain stability.

Its twin tail booms and the back half of each wing rotate upwards to create drag, much like the feathers on a badminton shuttlecock. The tail booms and wings then return to normal for the glide back to earth.

Nasa has already indicated interest in the competition. Michael Lembeck, a senior official within the agency's Office of Exploration Systems, said: "We need people like Burt Rutan with innovative ideas that will take us to the Moon and Mars. Folks like Burt bring a different way of doing business."

Mr Melvill, 62, was selected for yesterday's flight from the project's pool of three pilots. During a test flight last month he flew the rocket plane to an altitude of about 40 miles.

He has previously set national and world records for altitude and speed in certain classes of aircraft, and has logged more than 6,400 hours of flight time in 111 fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters. His test flights range from crop dusters to fighter jet prototypes and racing planes.

After yesterday's effort, he was almost lost for words. "It was an incredible experience, it really was."

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