One test flight, one giant leap for private space travel

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The Independent US

The race to send privately owned rockets into space heated up yesterday with the second successful test of a craft built by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan.

Just as it did in June, Mr Rutan's SpaceShipOne successfully detached from its mother jet in the skies above California's Mojave desert, blasted upwards for 62 miles and then safely returned to Earth approximately 80 minutes later.

A crowd of aviation VIPs, camera crews and space enthusiasts watched in awe as SpaceShipOne , financed by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, appeared to struggle in its initial ascent. The craft rolled more than two dozen times before steadying itself and continuing onwards to its target height.

One astronaut, Michael Melvill, was on board, along with the equivalent weight of two passengers.

The feat will be attempted again next Monday and, if successful, SpaceShipOne will have qualified for $10m (£5.6m) in prize money offered by a St Louis-based foundation, the Ansari X Prize, with the hope of turning space travel into an experience within the reach of paying customers.

Already, Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur and flight enthusiast, has cut a deal with Mr Allen - who has sunk more than $20m into the enterprise - and Mr Rutan to manufacture commercial versions of SpaceShipOne and offer seats to paying customers within three years.

The thinking behind the Ansari X Prize Foundation is that the private sector is likely to make commercial space travel a reality much faster than government agencies.