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A prototype reusable rocket, intended as a forerunner of the space shuttle's eventual replacement, briefly burst into flames Saturday after completing its first flight.

However, damage was superficial and the flight was a success, said officials for the Delta Clipper-Experimental Advanced rocket program."This is exactly why you test airplanes and spacecraft, because we're not yet smart enough to know how everything is going to work," said Pete Conrad, a former Apollo astronaut and the DC-XA's flight manager.

The 42-foot upgraded version of the first rocket to take off and land vertically lifted off and soared 800 feet, maneuvered sideways for about 350 feet, then descended on its four columns of blue exhaust flames.

But after it touched down on the landing pad, the bullet-shaped rocket was enveloped in flames and smoke. It remained in an upright position.

The vehicle had hovered above the pad longer than planned, and flame bouncing upward ignited heat-protective paint on the craft's outside surface, said David Schweikle, DC-XA program manager for McDonnell Douglas Corp.

"It was doing its job," Conrad said of the paint.

Damage was confined to one blackened area of the hull. Schweikle said it would take about one week to repair.

The DC-XA was expected to continue its five-flight test series as scheduled on June 7.