Mojave (California), June 21 (Agencies): The privately-funded rocket plane SpaceShipOne flew to outer space and into history books today as the world’s first commercial manned space flight.
The distinctive white rocket plane was released from a larger plane called the White Knight and ignited its rocket engine to enter space 100 km above the earth.
Against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, it landed safely back at a runway in the Mojave Desert in California, about 160 km north of Los Angeles.
The flight marked the first time that a non-government spacecraft reached the altitude considered to be the boundary between earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
For a few minutes after SpaceShipOne began its descent, it was unclear whether pilot Michael Melvill had reached his goal. But the mission announcer finally said the mission had been successful.
“Beautiful sight, Mike,” mission control told Melvill as the gliding spaceship slowly circled toward its landing.
“The colours were pretty staggering from up there,” said Melvill, who also earned his wings, officially, as an astronaut. “It was almost a religious experience.”
Melvill said he could see the black expanse of outer space, the curvature of the earth and a broad swathe of the Southern California coast during his three and half minutes just beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
The unprecedented $20-million project was intended to demonstrate the viability of commercial space flights and open the door for space tourism.
The plane with its striking nose — a pointed cone covered with small portholes — was designed by legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan and built with more than $20 million in funding by billionaire Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft Corp.
“We do want our children to go to the planets,” said Rutan.
Before the take-off, Allen said: “We will attempt to add a new page to the aviation books. It’s incredibly exciting.”
After burning its rocket for 80 seconds, SpaceShipOne sped up to more than three times the speed of sound and then coasted to its peak altitude, making Melvill weightless.
Melvill said he released a bag of M&M chocolates to see if they would float in the cockpit. “It was amazing, these M&Ms were going around everywhere,” he said.
Hundreds of onlookers had flocked to the California desert to witness the historic flight.
Allen and SpaceShipOne’s builders were expected to next try for the Ansari X Prize, which is $10 million for the first team that sends three people, or an equivalent weight, on a manned space vehicle 100 km above the earth and repeats the trip within two weeks.