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A rocket plane soared above Earth's atmosphere Monday in the first privately financed manned spaceflight, then glided back to Earth for an unpowered landing.
SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill was aiming to fly 62 miles above the Earth's surface. The exact altitude reached was not immediately confirmed by radar.
The ship touched down at Mojave Airport to applause and cheers at 8:15 a.m. PDT, about 90 minutes after it was carried aloft slung under the belly of the jet-powered White Knight.
The mission announcer said the mission had been successful.
''Beautiful sight, Mike,'' mission control said to Melvill as the gliding spaceship slowly circled toward its landing.
Later, standing on the tarmac beside the ship, Melvill said seeing the Earth from outside the atmosphere was ''almost a religious experience.''
''You can see the curvature of the Earth,'' he said. ''You got a hell of a view from 60, 62 miles.''
Melvill said he heard a loud bang during the flight and did not know what it was. But he pointed to a place at the rear of the spacecraft where a part of the structure covering the nozzle had buckled, suggesting it may have been the source of the noise.
White Knight took off at 6:45 a.m. carrying the rocket plane. After an hours' climb the pair reached about 46,000 feet and SpaceShipOne was released.
A moment later Melvill flipped a switch to arm the rocket, and another switch to ignite it. After a brief firing, the rocket motor shut down and the craft coasted to the top of its trajectory.
Both craft were built by innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan, and the project was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who would only describe the cost as being in excess of $20 million.
''Clearly, there is an enormous, pent-up hunger to fly in space and not just dream about it,'' Rutan said Sunday. ''Now I know what it was like to be involved in America's amazing race to the moon in the '60s.''
SpaceShipOne is 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.
NASA 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, 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.
Melvill is a test pilot and vice president-general manager at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne and White Knight.
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, 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.''
Dang someone beat us to it.