'SpaceShipOne' becomes first privately funded vehicle to break through earth's atmosphere

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The Independent Online

A piloted rocket plane has blasted through the earth's atmosphere becoming the first privately funded vehicle to reach the edge of space.



A piloted rocket plane has blasted through the earth's atmosphere becoming the first privately funded vehicle to reach the edge of space.

Manned by Mike Melvill, a 62-year-old test pilot, the teardrop-shaped rocket made a 55 second climb to 211,400ft (40 miles) before free-falling to a near perfect landing at Mojave airport, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles in California.

SpaceShipOne, the brainchild of Burt Rutan, the American designer, was lofted into launch position by its a spider-like mother plane, White Night, inside a smaller winged rocket attached to its belly. It then fell for a few seconds before the engines were ignited, lurching it forward. The craft made the longest such ascent by a private manned rocket - before shutting off the engine. It then continued upward for a few seconds, propelled by its own momentum.

Specially designed vertical stabilisers kept the vehicle upright as it fell, speeding across the sky at more than twice the speed of sound, also a first for a private endeavour. Describing the view from his window on a mission previously completed only by astronauts and military test pilots, Melvin said: "Watching the blue sky go completely black was the highlight of my career." Mr Rutan, renowned as a pioneer in the aerospace industry, has built numerous aircraft, including Voyager, which made the first nonstop flight around the world in 1986 without refuelling.

Previously only two private individuals have managed to reach space: Santa Monica businessman Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth, each paying $20m (£12m) to ride in a Russian-built Soyuz.

Mr Rutan and others are hoping to win the X Prize - a $10m award to the first team that launches a piloted privately funded spaceship able to carry three people 100km (62.5 miles) into the atmosphere and return safely. The team must repeat the launch with the same ship within two weeks. They want to open the way for commercial spaceflights in which the public could get a round-trip space fare for about $100,000 by 2020.

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