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Private spaceship launch successful

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Last updated on: June 21, 2004 22:13 IST

Sixty-two-year-old pilot Mike Melvill, on Monday, became the first human to fly a privately built ship beyond the Earth's atmosphere, as the world's first commercial space flight took off from a runway in California's Mojave desert.

Plane designer, 61-year old Burt Rutan and his crew launched the SpaceShipOne rocket plane from its White Knight mothership jet.

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The White Knight jet carried the spacecraft to an altitude of 50,000ft where SpaceShipOne released and fired its rocket engine for the quick trip into space and back to earth.

SpaceShipOne reached an altitude above 62.5 miles (100 km) during its brief flight on Monday morning. The space vehicle landed safely at the same place from which it took off. The two craft took off together over the Mojave Desert about 0945 a.m. {Eastern Time (about 1915 IST)}. 

The winged, bullet-shaped white ship was dreamed up by Rutan, chief of a company named Scaled Composites LLC, with financing from billionaire Paul Allen, a co-founder of software giant Microsoft. Allen said more than $20 million were put into the project.

The mission was inspired in part by the X Prize, a competition to find the first privately funded, non-government body that can launch a manned craft into space. About 25 teams from seven countries are said to be in contention. To claim the $10 million prize, contestants must reach an altitude of 62 miles - the official boundary of space - and return safely to Earth twice within two weeks.

The flight will be suborbital -- high enough to be in space and for the pilot to experience weightlessness -- but not high enough to be in orbit.

SpaceShipOne weighs about three tonnes and is made of a graphite composite material.