A test pilot in a stubby rocket plane will try to climb more than 60 miles over California’s Mojave Desert and punch through the atmosphere today in the first stage of a quest to win a €8m prize meant to encourage space tourism.
SpaceShipOne, which in June became the first private, manned craft to reach space, was to make two attempts to rocket through the atmosphere in six days, less than half the 14 day span allowed under Ansari X Prize rules.
The second flight is set for October 4.
Created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne is poised to take the prize sought by more than two dozen teams around the world.
Its closest competitor, a Canadian team with a balloon-launched rocket, scheduled its first flight for October 2 but then postponed.
The X Prize, funded by the Ansari family of Dallas, was dreamed up nearly a decade ago as an incentive for development of commercial manned rockets that would make space flight a possibility for civilians.
It appears to have achieved that goal even before the first competitive flight.
Sir Richard Branson, the airline mogul and adventurer, announced this week that his Virgin Group plans to offer passenger flight into space aboard rockets based on SpaceShipOne by 2007.
SpaceShipOne is carried aloft slung beneath the belly of a specially designed jet.
After the mothership climbs to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet, the spaceship is released into a glide for a few moments before its rocket motor ignites.
X Prize rules require that a spacecraft be capable of carrying three people, but for the competition it may be flown by a pilot and carry the weight equivalent of two other people.
The exact cost of developing SpaceShipOne has not been revealed. Allen will only say that he has invested more than €16m.