for National Geographic News
SpaceShipOne scored a ten-million-dollar (U.S.) hat trick this morning. The world's first privately built manned spacecraft completed its third round-trip journey to space. In the process, it laid claim to ten million dollars (U.S.) in prize money and further bolstered dreams of private space exploration.
The craft, tucked under the belly of the carrier airplane White Knight, lifted off from California's Mojave Airport, now technically a spaceport, around 6:45 Pacific time. Ninety minutes and a 62-mile-high (100-kilometer-high) space shot later, the vehicle was safely back on the ground. The record-breaking flight appeared to go off without a hitch.
Brian Binnie, a veteran U.S. Navy aviator and one of four pilots trained to fly SpaceShipOne, piloted the spacecraft. "Flying this vehicle is literally a rush," he said after the historic flight.
The astronaut snapped some pictures while aloft. "The view to the human eye exceeds anything that you could ever capture in a picture," Binnie noted afterwards. "It's something everyone should see once in a lifetime."
As he was freefalling back to Earth, Binnie unveiled a small model of SpaceShipOne, which floated in the weightless atmosphere of the cockpit.
He was the first pilot to push SpaceShipOne past the sound barrier back in December 2003. That flight ended in the brush edging the Mojave Airport's landing strip, where a hard touchdown damaged the spaceship's landing gear.
But today no such problem dogged pilot or spacecraft, which completed the second of two flights within a 14-day window required to capture the ten-million-dollar (U.S.) Ansari X Prize.
The St. Louis, Missouri-based X Prize Foundation created the X Prize to spur commercial space travel. The prize awaited the first privately constructed manned spacecraft to twice travel 62 miles/100 kilometers above Earth's surface (what many consider the edge of space) and back within two weeks.
SpaceShipOne had completed the first of its two X Prize missions last Wednesday. The triumphant flight was spiked with drama. The craft had made 29 unscripted rolls as it roared out of Earth's atmosphere, prompting concern from observers on the ground.
After touchdown, pilot Mike Melvill had reported that the craft was never out of his control. "The plane flies like a dream," he had said.
Subsequent safety checks showed the craft was shipshape for today's attempt. Melvill speculated that he may have initiated the roll by stepping too hard on one of the ship's controls. The craft's designer, Burt Rutan, said the roll was caused by a known control problem.
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