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Privately Funded Rocket Plane Reaches Outer Earth Atmosphere

SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen and designed by Burt Ratan and a team at Scaled Composites, took off aboard a custom-made carrier aircraft from a runway in the Mojave Desert in California, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

The rocket plane disconnected from the carrier jet, the White Knight, at about 8 a.m. Pacific time at its launch point, about 50,000 feet above the desert, according to The Washington Post.

South African-born pilot Michael Melvill, 62, then fired SpaceShipOne’s rocket to begin the steep ascent to his target altitude of 328,084 feet — or 62 miles — at the point considered to be the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

The rocket prematurely shut down, but officials for the flight later said the craft had reached its target, the Post reported.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, Melvill reconfigured SpaceShipOne’s wings to increase drag in the upper atmosphere and decrease speed. At the denser part of the atmosphere, the wings returned to their normal configuration and the unpowered rocket plane began to glide back to the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center’s runway, where it landed at about 8:15 a.m.

Later, Melvill described his trip as “almost a religious experience.”

“You can see the curvature of the Earth,” he said. “You got a hell of a view from 60, 62 miles.”

Melvill is the general manager and a vice president at Rutan’s Scaled Composites, which designed and built SpaceShipOne over three and half years. Allen has said the cost was in excess of $20 million.

SpaceShipOne is the leading contender for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million reward for the first privately financed three-seat aircraft to reach 62 miles and repeat the feat within two weeks.

Twenty-six teams from seven nations are vying for the prize, according to the foundation’s Web site.

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