Updated: 8:45 p.m. ET
MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA -- Human flight took a significant step forward today as the privately built SpaceShipOne flew into suborbital space for the second time in five days, securing the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
With pilot Brian Binnie at the controls, SpaceShipOne rocketed to a winning height of 367,442 feet (112 kilometers), setting a new altitude record for the craft and proving that private industry can build a viable vehicle for sending paying passengers to space.
SpaceShipOne technology is currently owned by a Paul Allen company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV). Allen is a Microsoft co-founder and bankrolled the design and building of SpaceShipOne to the tune of more than $20 million.
The MAV team is led by research aircraft developer Burt Rutan, chief of Scaled Composites, based here at the Mojave Spaceport.
At a post-flight press briefing, Rick Searfoss, a former shuttle astronaut and now chief judge for the Ansari X Prize, stated: "I declare that the Mojave Aerospace Ventures has indeed earned the Ansari X Prize."
Binnie was the 434th human to have left our planet to go into space, Searfoss noted.
"It's really an incredible feat of technology," Allen said. "I've been involved in technology for awhile. But this is really amazing. This is rocket science...this is real first-class, top-line rocket science executed to an incredible degree of precision. This flight couldn't have been any smoother."
Kickoff of space tourism industry
Seconds after being released from the White Knight carrier plane somewhere above 46,000 feet, Binnie ignited SpaceShipOne's hybrid rocket motor, boosting the craft well above the target point of 62 miles (100 kilometers) required by the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis, Missouri in order to win the cash prize.
The top altitude was confirmed by radar while SpaceShipOne was gliding back to Earth. The craft touched down like a regular airplane at 11:14 a.m. ET.
"This is a milestone for humanity," said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society in Los Angeles.
Shortly after SpaceShipOne became airborne this morning, Spencer told SPACE.com the flight represents "the kickoff of the space tourist industry."
On a roll
The Ansari X Prize is a $10 million purse for the first privately built vehicle that could safely haul a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers to the edge of space -- then repeat the feat within two weeks.
Last week, SpaceShipOne, under the controls of pilot Mike Melvill, coasted above the 62-mile (100-kilometer) altitude point and successfully completed the first of the back-to-back X Prize flights.
That Sept. 29 flight -- dubbed X1 -- saw SpaceShipOne soar to a reported 337,500 feet. Melvill's rocket ride was not without incident. The craft rolled nearly 30 times in an unplanned manner as it shot faster than a bullet out of Earth's atmosphere.
Melvill was able to dampen out the roll, re-enter the atmosphere, and make a controlled glide and landing at the Mojave Spaceport. This flight was deemed by a team of judges as a successful first flight for the Ansari X Prize.
Today's clinching flight went off without any apparent hitches. It reached 69.7 miles (112.2 kilometers), well above the minimum target.
"I've been around since they were stuffing people into Mercury capsules," said science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, an eye witness to the flight. "This is great stuff."
SpaceShipOne was under the control of a single pilot in both flights, but it was weighted as if two additional people were aboard.
There is significant additional performance in the craft's hybrid rocket motor, its designers say, enough to propel it on an even higher suborbital trajectory.
"We might have gotten to 370,000 feet if my mother-in-law hadn't spilled about a pound of coffee on me this morning," Binnie said after stepping out of the space plane. "A little accident added to the drama of the day."
Commuter drive to work
"Today we make history," said Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation. "Today the winners are the people of Earth."
Remarking on Binnie's "commuter drive" to work today, Diamandis quipped: "If you've ever seen a straight-line drawn, we saw one here today."
SpaceShipOne's apparent success is not expected dull enthusiasm of other rocketeers building suborbital vehicles, predicted Diamandis.
"If the Ansari X Prize is won...I think you'll see the first Canadian, the first Russian, the first British, the first Romanian...all the X Prize teams outside the United States will continue their work to become the first of their nation to carry out a first private flight into space," Diamandis said. "I think that's still huge news," he told SPACE.com in a pre-flight interview.
Brian Feeney, who leads a rival X Prize effort called the da Vinci group, wished the SpaceShipOne team well this morning just prior to the flight, and he vowed not to stop his own effort.
"Even if the prize is won today, we will fly," Feeney told SPACE.com. "We're moving our program as fast as we can. We'll announce a launch date in a short period of time." Feeney was wearing a gold-colored outfit to promote GoldenPalace.com, the sponsor of his Canadian team. But Feeney's mission has been a largely volunteer effort, while SpaceShipOne is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
"Not everyone has a billionaire available to them," Feeney said this morning.
With today's flight, Binnie became just the second civilian pilot to earn his astronaut wings, along with Melvill. The 51-year-old Binnie is a program business manager and test pilot at Scaled Composites, the firm that built SpaceShipOne.
Burt Rutan, leader of Scaled Composites, has big plans.
The company announced September 27 they plan to build a new 5-person 'rocket plane for British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who will market space tourism flights to the public under the name Virgin Galactic.
"What you've seen here is a research and development program to look at new ideas on how manned spacecraft can really be significantly safer ... and there will be new ideas out there," Rutan said after today's flight. "We will be developing new ideas also on SpaceShipTwo."
Kitty Hawk move over
Today's flight was witnessed by Marion Blakey, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
"From all of us in the aviation business, Kitty Hawk move over," Blakey said. "This was an incredibly historic day," she said.
"This was not only a historic flight, the standards of safety that were set here today are going to go on to ensure that there's going to be lots of tourists out there that'll enjoy it. We'll be partner with you on it," Blakey said.
Blakey later awarded pilot Binnie his commercial astronaut wings.
Diamandis said that those engaged in today's flight of SpaceShipOne and X Prize officials also received a congratulatory call from President George W. Bush as he flew aboard Air Force One. The President, Diamandis relayed to reporters here, was pleased to see the spirit of entrepreneurship alive and well in the United States.
SPACE.com's Robert Roy Britt contributed to this report.
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