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SpaceShipOne Wins X Prize By Reaching Space a Second Time

By John Schwartz

The New York Times -- MOJAVE, Calif.

A private rocket ship shot into space on Monday morning and won a coveted $10 million aviation prize for its creators.

SpaceShipOne, the sleek combination of rocket and glider designed by Burt Rutan and financed by the billionaire Paul G. Allen, reached a record altitude of 368,000 feet, or 69.7 miles, blasting past the 337,600-foot altitude record for private craft set by the same ship last week.

That feat earned Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company formed by Rutan and Allen, the Ansari X Prize, a space competition modeled on the great contests of the early days of aviation. Members of the rocket team and organizers of prize jubilantly predicted that the flight, made on the 47th anniversary of the first Sputnik launching, marked the dawn of a new age of commercial human space flight.

“Ladies and gentleman, today we make history,” said Peter Diamandis, the organizer of the X Prize. He called Rutan “a furry mammal among the dinosaurs of the aerospace industry.”

As members of the thousands of spectators who had gathered to watch the desert landing chanted, “Burt, Burt,” Rutan took a jab at NASA -- “the other space agency” -- and said he was determined to develop a commercial spacecraft that was “at least 100 as safe than anything that has every flown man to space and probably a whole lot more.” The private race for space has captured the popular imagination, with its promise of wresting the dream of human space flight away from what private space boosters call a bloated and sluggish government monopoly. Even Google, the ubiquitous search engine, adorned its logo with a cartoon showing SpaceShipOne sailing above the Earth with a flying saucer swooping in for a closer look.

SpaceShipOne’s journey into space began shortly before 7 a.m. Monday morning, when it was carried to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet by its mother plane, the White Knight, and released at 7:49 a.m. The spacecraft’s pilot, Brian Binnie, lit the experimental rocket motor, which burns a combination of rubber and nitrous oxide -- also known as laughing gas -- and ran the motor for its full planned duration of nearly 90 seconds. After its swift ride into the sky, SpaceShipOne returned to earth and touched down at 8:13 a.m. Pacific time.

The flight also far surpassed the previous flight altitude record for an air-launched craft, 354,000 feet reached by the X-15 in 1963.

Binnie, a 51-year-old former Navy pilot, stepped out, carrying an American flag he had taken in the ship. Before unfurling it, he said, “I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible.”

In two previous flights, SpaceShipOne had shown a tendency to roll at high altitudes.