First-Ever Private Space Flight a Success

MOJAVE, California -- A veteran civilian test pilot on Monday became the first human to reach space in a privately developed program, guiding a tiny rocket ship more than 96 kilometers above California in a flight with several white-knuckle moments.

In front of thousands of spectators and a teeming press corps, the squid-shaped craft, Space Ship One, was lifted into the atmosphere shortly after 6:30 a.m., attached to the belly of a sleek plane called the White Knight.

When the plane reached an altitude of 13,800 meters, it dropped the smaller craft, and its pilot, Michael Melvill, started the rocket that took him up nearly 90,000 meters more, to the beginnings of space. He then brought Space Ship One back to Earth as a glider, touching down at 8:15.

When Melvill, 63, emerged, he climbed atop the spaceship, spread his arms and gave a primal holler: "Yeeeeeeee-haaah!"

Both craft were designed by Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, with the help of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who said he had put more than $20 million into the project.

"The flight today opens a new chapter in history, making space access within the reach of ordinary citizens," said Patti Grace Smith, the associate administrator for commercial space transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Smith presented Melvill with astronaut wings after the flight.

Melvill earned those wings with some tense moments. During the rocket-fired ascent, he and Rutan recounted in a news conference, Space Ship One suddenly rolled 90 degrees to the left.

Melvill quickly corrected, rolling the plane 90 degrees to the right, but then found that his trim controls, which are supposed to help control lift and drag, had a malfunctioning motor. He switched quickly to backup controls, stabilized the errant trim system, and left it alone until he reached the ground again.

"I was afraid to touch it," Melvill said.

The trim problem left the plane some 32 kilometers off course and changed the angle of flight so that it reached only 100,120 meters -- just beyond the goal, an altitude of 100 kilometers. The team had been hoping to go even higher, 109,000 meters.

Until Monday, the only travelers to reach the imaginary line between Earth's atmosphere and suborbital space have been aboard ships paid for and controlled by governments. Monday's flight is a major step along the way for the Rutan team to be able to claim the Ansari X Prize, an international competition to launch people into space without government assistance.

The competition, which began in 1996, has attracted more than two dozen teams from around the world. It requires contestants to fly three people to an altitude of 100 kilometers and then to repeat the flight with the same craft within two weeks. The boundary of space is not well defined; NASA gives astronaut status to anyone who has flown higher than 50 miles (80 kilometers), but some European authorities mark the border at 100 kilometers. The X Prize founders settled on the higher number.

The creators of the prize modeled it on the competitions that spurred early developments in aviation, including the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 with his trans-Atlantic solo flight from New York to Paris.

The X Prize foundation has announced that it will end the competition on Jan. 1 if there is no winner.

Rutan said Monday that if the flight had been uneventful, the next flight would have been intended as the first of two X Prize flights. But he said that the malfunctions called that plan into question, and that his team would make no decisions until the causes of the problems had been identified and corrected.

The broad goal of the modern competition is the same as the earlier endeavors: to popularize the new technology and to build interest in its commercial uses.

The backers of the X Prize hope to see a new era of space tourism, just as the first fliers set off a flurry of barnstorming, the first flowering of air tourism.

At a news conference here the day before the flight, Rutan said: "Thirty years ago, if you had asked NASA -- and people did in those days -- 'How long would it be before I could buy tickets to space?' the answer was, 'About 30 years.'

"If you ask today, you'll get about the same answer: 30 years. I think that's unfortunate. There has been no progress at all made toward affordable space travel."

That sentiment was popular in the crowd. One of the spectators handed Rutan a sign that read:

Space Ship: One

Government: Zero.