The prospect of space flights for the public has come a big step closer after the US Federal Aviation Agency awarded the first licence for a private company to send a manned rocket-propelled craft to the edge of the atmosphere.
The licence was won by a company called Scaled Composites, based in the Mojave Desert in California, and headed by the high-altitude flight pioneer Burt Rutan. He has declared an ambition of providing sub-orbital flights to paying customers within 10 years.
Mr Rutan is best known for his successful attempt to fly a super-light aircraft around the world, without refuelling. The plane, the Voyager, took flight amid a blaze of publicity in 1986.
The licence means he is free to begin test-flying his latest machine, christened SpaceShipOne, to an altitude of 60 miles, on the fringe of space. So far, the plane, which will be released at high altitudes from the back of another exotic plane, named White Knight, has been test-flown less than 13 miles up.
Mr Rutan expressed his excitement at gaining the government's green light in an entry on his website yesterday. "I strongly feel that, if we are successful, our programme will mark the beginning of a renaissance for manned space flight," he wrote. "This might even be similar to that wonderful time period between 1908 and 1912 when the world went from a total of 10 airplane pilots to hundreds of airplane types and thousands of pilots in 39 countries. We need affordable space travel to inspire our youth."
The government's decision puts Mr Rutan in the pole position to be the winner of the so-called X Prize Competition. Launched by a private foundation in St Louis in 1996, the contest is offering $10m (£5.5m) to the first company that sends a manned rocket to a height of 62.5 miles and repeats the exercise within two weeks. Additionally, the winning craft must be able to carry three people.
The X Prize Foundation has the backing of several high-profile characters, including the actor Tom Hanks, whose films include an epic about Apollo 13. Others involved in the foundation are Dennis Tito, the American who spent $20m to fly in a Russian craft as the first space tourist; the pilot Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn, the former astronaut who is now a senator.
SpaceShipOne is a snub-nosed craft made of epoxy and graphite, with short wings and twin vertical tails. The licence for its high-altitude testing was awarded only after officials from the FAA travelled to the Mojave to test it for safety.
A spokesman for the FAA said yesterday: "We want to do what we can with the knowledge we have to make sure that the launch is as safe as possible for the public."