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Science & Space

Private spacecraft to launch June 21

By Michael Coren
CNN space and science editor

Image of SpaceShipOne taken during an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base.
Image of SpaceShipOne taken during an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base.
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SpaceShipOne's trial flight

White Knight takes off carrying SpaceShipOne over the Mojave Desert.

Animation: SpaceShipOne separates from a turbojet.
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(CNN) -- The world's first privately built spacecraft is scheduled to leave Earth on June 21 and -- if successful -- usher in a new era of spaceflight for private enterprise.

Scaled Composites, the company launching SpaceShipOne, said the launch will open a new frontier for human spaceflight.

"Without the entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of reach for ordinary citizens," said Burt Rutan, the aeronautics engineer leading the program, in a written statement. "The SpaceShipOne flights will change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, lost-cost era in space travel."

In the early morning of June 21, the spacecraft and its pilot are to be carried by a jet called the White Knight to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. The craft will then separate from the jet and glide for several seconds before its rocket engines are ignited.

The 80-second burn will propel the craft to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound, and into space. It will cruise for three minutes beyond Earth's atmosphere, approximately 100 km (62 miles) above the ground. The pilot will then perform a maneuver called "feathering" that reconfigures its wings to increase drag and bring it back to Earth.

The vehicle will touch down on the same runway it left about an hour and a half earlier.

The company's decision to launch into space -- and confirm its lead in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for civilian spaceflight -- was announced Wednesday. The California-based company said the public will be able to view the takeoff at its projected "spaceport" in the Mojave Desert of California.

SpaceShipOne is not the only spacecraft in the running for the X Prize. More than 20 teams from seven countries have registered to compete for the award. A private foundation will award the prize to the first team that privately finances, builds and launches a spaceship carrying three people into sub-orbital space -- 62.5 miles above Earth. If fewer than three are on the flight, weight equivalent to two other people must be carried. The vehicle must return safely and repeat the launch within two weeks.

Rutan's craft will have only one person on board for the June 21 attempt despite having room for two passengers. Depending on the success of the initial flight, it will compete for the X Prize later in the year.

The financial and visionary force behind the company, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, said the achievements of SpaceShipOne represent more than just a successful test flight.

"This flight is one of the most exciting and challenging activities taking place in aviation and aerospace today," Allen said in a written statement. "Every time SpaceShipOne flies we demonstrate that relatively modest amounts of private funding can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology."

The Scaled Composites team has made 14 successful test flights without a major mishap. The last trial on May 13 achieved a height of 211,400 feet -- approximately 40 miles -- during a 55-second rocket burn. Despite a guidance system malfunction that forced the pilot to navigate the return trajectory by sight, the touchdown went smoothly.

The public will be able to view the latest test flight up close from the Mojave Airport.


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