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Science & Space

Private spaceship sets altitude record

Firm is competing for the $10 million X Prize

From Dave Santucci

SpaceShipOne on Thursday flight
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Watch the flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne.
Space Exploration
Paul Allen

(CNN) -- The ultimate thrill ride could be closer to reality.

Aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites took a giant leap early Thursday toward becoming the first private company to send a person into space.

Scaled Composites, funded by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, set a new civilian altitude record of 40 miles in a craft called SpaceShipOne during a test flight above California's Mojave Desert.

The firm is one of 24 companies from several countries competing for the $10 million X Prize, which will go to the first privately funded group to send three people on a 62.5-mile-high suborbital flight and repeat the feat within two weeks using the same vehicle.

The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is sponsoring the contest to promote the development of a low-cost, efficient craft for space tourism in the same way prize competitions stimulated commercial aviation in the early 20th century.

The prize is fully funded through January 1, 2005, according to the foundation's Web site.

The Rutan-designed White Knight aircraft, with SpaceShipOne attached to its belly, rolled down the Mojave Airport runway at 7:41 a.m. PT Thursday.

The strangely shaped White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet. Then 50 minutes after takeoff, the spacecraft separated from White Knight and rocketed into the stratosphere.

"There was tremendous acceleration. We went very, very fast, and I went straight up" for two minutes, said 62-year-old pilot Mike Melvill, who floated weightlessly as he leveled out at 212,000 feet.

When SpaceShipOne glided back to Mojave Airport and rolled to a stop, Melvill was greeted by about 75 people, mostly employees of Scaled Composites and their families.

Shortly after his flight, a very excited Melvill told CNN that seeing the sky go from blue to black was the thrill of his life.

"I feel great, it was fabulous. I would pay a million dollars to do that again," he said.

And paying for flights is exactly what Rutan and his company are banking on.

Those who support the X Prize competition compare the hoped-for space tourism industry to the aviation industry in its infancy, pointing out that world commercial aviation is now a $250 billion enterprise.

The X Prize Foundation notes that Charles Lindbergh was competing for a $25,000 prize when he flew from New York to Paris in 1927 on the first nonstop solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Allen has shown his interest in space by funding the SETI Institute, which is dedicated to searching for life outside Earth. SETI stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"We continue to make remarkable progress with the SpaceShipOne test flights," Allen said in a statement issued after Thursday's flight.

"Our attempt to send the first privately funded astronaut into suborbital space will be the next step in that process. If successful, it will be a major milestone in private space exploration."

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