MOJAVE, Calif. – Mike Melvill (search) is hoping to boldly go where no private enterprise has gone before.
Melvill was to be in the cockpit Monday of a privately developed rocket plane that seeks to soar into suborbital space, making history as the first non-governmental manned spaceflight.
SpaceShipOne (search) was so thoroughly prepared that no work was done on it over the weekend, designer Burt Rutan said Sunday as aviation enthusiasts gathered in the Mojave Desert to await the event.
"Clearly, there is an enormous, pent-up hunger to fly in space and not just dream about it," Rutan told a news conference. "Now I know what it was like to be involved in America's amazing race to the moon in the '60s."
The rocket, carrying pilot Melvill, was to be carried aloft from Mojave Airport early Monday, slung beneath the belly of a specially built jet dubbed White Knight.
After a climb to about 50,000 feet, SpaceShipOne was to be released from the mother ship, fire its rockets for 80 seconds, coast up to the target altitude of 62 miles and then make a half-hour descent as a glider.
The project was funded by Paul Allen (search), the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, who would describe the cost only as being in excess of $20 million.
SpaceShipOne has emerged as the leading contender for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to the first privately financed three-seat spacecraft to reach 62 miles and repeat the feat within two weeks.
The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers; the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.
Monday's planned flight was not part of that competition, but Melvill was confident that the program will go on to claim the prize, which is intended to spur efforts to give the public access to space.
"I'm ready to go; boy, I am ready to go. And we are going to win the X-Prize. Put your money on it," he said Sunday.
Melvill, 62, was selected for the flight from among the project's three pilots. During a test flight last month, he flew the rocket plane to an altitude of about 40 miles.
"I enjoyed the last flight," Melvill said. "I'm hoping this will be an exact repetition just a little taller, a little higher, a little faster, and I'm looking forward to it very, very much."
NASA (search) also is interested, said Michael Lembeck, requirements division director of the space agency's Office of Exploration Systems.
"We need people like Burt Rutan with innovative ideas that will take us to the moon and Mars," he said from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters. "Folks like Burt bring a different way of doing business."
Melvill is a test pilot and vice president-general manager at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne.
He has set national and world records for altitude and speed in certain classes of aircraft, and has logged more than 6,400 hours of flight time in 111 fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters. His test flights range from crop dusters to fighter jet prototypes and racing planes.
Rutan gained wide fame by designing the Voyager aircraft (search), which flew around the world nonstop and without refueling in 1986. Rutan hoped his latest program shows that spaceflight is not just for governments.
"I believe that realization will attract investment and that realization will attract a whole bunch of activity and very soon it will be affordable for you to fly."