MOJAVE, Calif. – A stout, star-spangled rocket plane broke through the Earth's atmosphere to the edge of space Monday for the second time in five days, capturing a $10 million prize aimed at opening the final frontier to tourists.
The privately built SpaceShipOne (search) took off underneath the belly of a mother plane that carried it about nine miles over the Mojave Desert. From there, SpaceShipOne fired its engine and streaked skyward at about three times the speed of sound on a half-hour flight that took it more than 62 miles high, generally considered the point where space begins.
SpaceShipOne — with test pilot Brian Binnie (search) at the controls — then glided safely back to Earth.
"This is the true frontier of transportation," said Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, who stood near the runway to watch the flight. "It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have."
Binnie called it a "fantastic experience" — especially the sight of Earth from space. "There is darkness outside the windows," he said. "It's contrasted starkly by the bright pearl that is the greater California area, which is the view from up there."
The reward for the achievement is the $10 million Ansari X Prize (search), created in 1996 to kick-start the development of privately built rocket ships that could make spaceflight available to the public.
To win the prize, a spacecraft capable of carrying three people had to make two flights to an altitude just over 62 miles within two weeks. The goal was to show that the rocket could go back and forth like a spaceliner.
About an hour after the spaceship landed, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (search) said the altitude was official, and declared SpaceShipOne's team the winner.
X Prize chief judge Rick Searfoss said the spacecraft reached a height of 367,442 feet and speeds of Mach 3.09 during ascent and Mach 3.26 on the way down.
During the post-flight news conference, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan took a few shots at the traditional aerospace community.
"The big guys, the Boeings, the Lockheeds and the naysaying people at Houston ... I think they are looking at each other now and saying, `We're screwed,"' Rutan said.
Major funding for the prize came from the Ansari family of Dallas. Diamandis hoped the St. Louis-based Ansari X Prize would have the same effect on space travel as the Orteig Prize had on air travel more than 80 years ago. Charles Lindbergh claimed that $25,000 prize in 1927 after making his solo trans-Atlantic flight.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who put more than $20 million into the project, watched Monday's flight from the control room.
"Your heart goes straight to your throat," he said.
The total cost of the project has not been released, but Rutan jokingly noted to Allen on Monday that the $10 million prize covered 40 percent of Allen's costs. That would make Allen's investment $25 million.
The prize money will be spread among the employees of Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, Rutan said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush called to congratulate the SpaceShipOne team.
"He thanked the entire team for their leadership and vision, and for their important contributions to space flight," McClelland said.
SpaceShipOne's effort has drawn high-level attention from the U.S. government, and comes at a time when others are preparing for space tourism.
Last week, Richard Branson, the British airline mogul and adventurer, announced that beginning in 2007, he will begin offering paying customers flights into space. Branson said he had a deal, worth up to $25 million over 15 years, to license the technology that led to SpaceShipOne. Fares will start at more than $200,000.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe came to Mojave to watch last week's flight, and the FAA and members of the industry are in talks about regulatory aspects of space tourism, particularly the safety of people on the ground as well as that of the passengers.
Patti Grace Smith, associate administrator for the FAA's office of commercial space transportation, said the excitement around the X Prize has begun to draw the interest of the investment community.
"I'm starting to get calls from brokers. That's brand new," she said.
Thousands of space enthusiasts and reporters gathered to watch on Monday as SpaceShipOne — with a plump fuselage and spindly wings 161/2 feet across — ascended into calm, clear skies on a chilly morning that saw the dawn bathed in pink hues.
Binnie, a graduate of the Navy test pilot school, was at the controls when SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier for the first time on a December test flight, which was marred when the craft hit the runway hard upon landing and veered into the brush, where a landing gear collapsed. This time his landing was flawless.
The first flight needed to win the X Prize took place on Sept. 29, with test pilot Michael Melvill at the controls. The spacecraft started corkscrewing as it neared the 62-mile mark, but Melvill managed to complete the flight safely.
Word of Binnie's accomplishment was relayed by NASA to the two men aboard the international space station, astronaut Mike Fincke and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.
"Fantastic," Fincke said, adding that it was great to learn that for a while he and Padalka were not "the only ones off the planet."