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U.S. team bids to win space prize

First of two qualifying flights for $10 million prize


SpaceShipOne
SpaceShipOne is capable of traveling at three times the speed of sound.
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(CNN) -- A Californian-based team will this week launch its bid to claim a $10 million prize by putting a privately financed manned craft into sub-orbital space.

The pioneering SpaceShipOne, designed and built by aerospace company Scaled Composites and financed by entrepreneur Paul Allen, has already achieved that feat by reaching an altitude of 328,491 feet -- approximately 62.5 miles -- on its inaugural flight in June.

But, under the terms of the Ansari X Prize, a team must be able to launch, land and re-launch the same spacecraft capable of carrying three passengers within a two-week period to collect the prize money.

The X Prize, inspired by the competitions that promoted advances in aviation during the early 20th century, was established in 1995 to encourage the development of private space travel, attracting 24 entrants from seven different countries.

On Wednesday, September 29, SpaceShipOne will fly again from Mojave Airport, the site of its successful first launch. If all goes well, the second prize-clinching flight is scheduled for Monday, October 4.

The first serious attempt to claim the X Prize is the result of almost a decade of collaboration between Microsoft co-founder Allen and innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan, the founder of Scaled Composites.

"Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites are part of a new generation of explorers who are sparking the imagination of a huge number of people worldwide and ushering in the birth of a new industry of privately funded manned space flight," said Allen.

Unlike conventional rockets, Rutan's lightweight design is carried to 50,000 feet underneath a specially-built jet aircraft, called "White Knight."

SpaceShipOne then detaches as the pilot ignites the engines, powered by a mix of liquid nitrous oxide and solid rubber fuel, which send the craft climbing at speeds of Mach 3 -- three times the speed of sound -- before it begins the long glide back down to earth.

At 62.1 miles, the internationally recognized boundary of space, the crew of SpaceShipOne would experience weightlessness for several minutes and be able to see the curvature of the earth.

Even if SpaceShipOne claims the $10 million prize, it will still have some way to go before it pays off development costs of $20 million.

While Henry Vanderbilt of the Space Access Society has said that the promoters of private space travel have the potential to be the "Boeing of the 21st century," most experts believe that the dream of affordable space travel could still be decades away.

Potential problems such as legal liability and government regulation also need to be addressed.

But there are already signs that space tourism could become a profitable business. Space Adventures have taken more than 100 bookings for future sub-orbital flights at $100,000 a time, while the company has also signed up a dozen customers ready to pay $20 million to visit the International Space Station.

And on Monday, Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson announced plans to offer private trips into space from 2008 in a deal with Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures that would utilize the SpaceShipOne technology.

"I think within the next two to three years there will be tickets available for sub-orbital flights," Rutan told an audience at a recent lecture at Edinburgh University.

"In 12 or 15 years, there will be routine, affordable space tourism not just in the U.S. but in a lot of countries."


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