MOJAVE, Calif. — A stubby private rocket ship called SpaceShipOne roared into space Monday for the second time in five days, claiming the most coveted aviation prize in recent history and promising to usher in a new era of space travel.
After toasting the flight to more than 69 miles into the heavens and the $10 million Ansari X Prize it earned, designer Burt Rutan said he'll now turn his attention to building spaceships that can regularly carry tourists to space within three years.
British investment company and airline operator Virgin Group has already hired Rutan to get five civilian rocket ships based on the SpaceShipOne design ready to fly by 2007. Each ship will hold five passengers and a pilot.
Passengers who pay around $190,000 for a ticket on Virgin Galactic will get to experience weightlessness, see the curvature of the Earth and view other planets for a few minutes before gliding back down to a commercial runway.
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said Monday that 5,000 people have said they'd be willing to pay that much for a ticket in the week since Virgin announced its involvement. In another sign that space commercialism is well on its way, soft drink maker 7-Up announced Monday that it would sponsor a contest to give away the first free ticket into space. "Initially the price will not be cheap, but in time it will drop," Branson said.
Rutan said his job now becomes building spaceships that are safer than the early commercial airliners or anything NASA builds.
"I have to develop a manned space tourism program . . . that's at least 100 times safer than anything ever flown into space," Rutan said.
There was some concern about safety after SpaceShipOne's trip last Wednesday, when the little white vessel rolled 29 times near the height of its journey.
Monday's trip, by contrast, was picture-perfect.
After nearly an hourlong trip slung beneath an airplane known as "White Knight" to an altitude of 50,000 feet, pilot Brian Binnie fired up the laughing gas and rubber that powers SpaceShipOne's engine at about 7:49 a.m. PDT.
The ship zoomed arrow-straight through the blue sky above the Mojave Desert to more than 367,000 feet, breaking an altitude record set in 1963 by the experimental X-15, the joint NASA-U.S. Air Force rocket ship.
A few minutes later, Binnie and SpaceShipOne touched the edge of space, and the new astronaut declared to his ground crew, "it's quiet."
Binnie was in space for several minutes before he changed the configuration of SpaceShipOne's tail to start its descent back to Earth. It spiraled back down to Mojave and glided onto a runway at about 8:13 a.m.
On the ground, Binnie called it a "fantastic experience."
"The best part is when the motor shut down," said the former U.S. Navy pilot, who also is a business manager at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites. "It's very, very quiet, you're instantly weightless, the Earth is below you and the dark sky above. It's a thrilling view."
The $10 million Ansari X prize, created to encourage private spaceflights, was offered to the team that sent a ship capable of carrying three people into space twice in two weeks. SpaceShipOne carried weights equivalent to two people along with its pilot.
The prize, sponsored by a family of Dallas telecom entrepreneurs, will be split between SpaceShipOne's financier, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, and Rutan's Scaled Composites.
As for SpaceShipOne, Rutan said it may eventually find its way into the Smithsonian Institution, but it will probably be used for more research first.
Monday's flight came on the 47th anniversary of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, which started the first international space race.
But Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, compared Monday's flight to another historic one — that of the Wright Brothers. "This was an incredibly historic day," she said.
Blakey said the FAA is only starting to consider regulatory rules for commercial space travel but added she had no qualms about the safety of SpaceShipOne.
"We saw, I think, an unparalleled performance in terms of safety," she said. "And while we recognize there will be risks and some days not as successful as this one, we think it's worth it."
Just as impressive as SpaceShipOne's altitude records is how quickly it reached them — and how.
NASA can take years to make a single launch, spending hundreds of millions of dollars and employing hundreds of engineers.
Rutan's group accomplished its goal with about $25 million in funding from Allen and a core staff of about 20 people. The guts of SpaceShipOne's "Mission Control" was a group of desktop computers linked together. And while many NASA spacecraft can be used only once, about 97 percent of SpaceShipOne is reusable.