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Excitement is building in Mojave, Calif., where a privately-funded rocket plane will attempt a record-setting flight to the edge of space. After being ferried under the fuselage of a carrier plane called "White Knight" to an altitude of 50,000 feet, a smaller plane dubbed "SpaceShipOne" will drop into a glide until it's pilot fires up the rocket engines. When they ignite, the vehicle will reach mach 3 in a vertical climb to 62 miles above the earth. Falling back into the atmosphere, the pilot will reorient the plant and glide to a 100 mph, landing on the desert floor. Unlike the space shuttle, which uses computers to operate many of its flight functions, the pilot has total control of SpaceShipOne. Adding a sense of mystery and fun to the venture, his identity will remain a secret until a Sunday, June 20 press conference. Potential Scaled Composite's astronauts are test pilots Brian Binnie, Mike Melvill, Doug Shane, and Pete Siebold. All have significant experience in the experimental space craft.
Designed by famed aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and built by Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne is a leading contender for the Ansari X Prize offered to promote low-cost commercial space travel. Like the Orteig prize that resulted in Charles Lindbergh's historic solo flight across the Atlantic, the X Prize hopes to spur civilian investment in the development of technologies that will take space travel out of the hands of governments and put it into the reach of businesses. This is a dream of Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen, who is a major investor in Rutan's project.
To win the $10 million prize, the entrants must show that their designs are privately financed and built. Teams must fly their vehicle twice within a 14-day period to a minimum altitude of 62 miles. The planes must be capable of carrying three adults who are 6'2" tall and 198 pounds each. Due to the goal of supporting low cost space travel, the second flight is to show the vehicle's economic reusability. Therefore, the vehicle has to come back to earth intact. And of course, the crew must return in good health.
In preparation for the June 21 test flight, The Mojave Airport Civilian Test Center displays its new license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). In fact, the whole region is getting into the act. All the hotel rooms, RV parks and campgrounds in Mojave have long since been booked for this event -- as well as those in the neighboring towns. There's a sense that this is the beginning of space flight for business, for tourism -- for transportation. The hope is that it will be available for the ordinary person in the way Lindbergh's historic flight led to jet airline intercontinental travel.