The first private manned rocket to reach space soared toward the edge of the atmosphere again in an unexpectedly bumpy ride Wednesday in the first half of a bid to earn a $10 million prize.
SpaceShipOne, with astronaut Michael Melvill at the controls, dropped away from its mother ship above Mojave Airport, fired its rocket and pulled into a vertical climb. The ship appeared to roll severely for a time but then steadied as it apparently reached its intended altitude. It then began a gliding descent and landed at 8:33 a.m., about an hour and a half after it left.
"Officials say it reached around 330,000 feet," reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman.
It was a wild ride, however, reports CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus. The craft made about two dozen rolls during its ascent, corkscrewing upward — something that wasn't supposed to happen.
"I was worried about that because that's not the way it was supposed to be," Dick Rutan, whose brother Burt Rutan helped design the ship, said.
"I wasn't worried about it," said Melvill. "It went up straight as dime."
Official confirmation on whether it reached the desired altitude was expected later in the day.
SpaceShipOne is trying for the $10 million X Prize, offered to whomever makes two flights 100 kilometers high, an altitude generally accepted as being in space, in two weeks or less.
The ship already reached that height during the SpaceShipOne's first flight in June, when history was on the line. Now it's about the money. Melvill also was the pilot in June, but doesn't think he'll be the pilot on the next flight.
"I'm too old to be doing this," he said after Wednesday's flight.
The specially designed jet with the spaceship under its belly had taken off at 7:12 a.m. from the airport in the desert north of Los Angeles and began its climb.
A crowd of VIPs watched from below the airport control tower, while journalists watched from bleachers along the runway. Spectators, some wrapped in blankets to ward off the early morning chills, erupted in cheers as the spacecraft and its chase planes taxied down the runway.
Among those watching Wednesday's launch was Adam Smith, 14, of Vienna, Virginia, who said he's had an interest in space "as far back as I can remember." He earned $1,000 this summer toward a down payment to a company called Space Adventures, which is taking reservations for future space travel.
"It was just one of those things — I want to do this," the 9th-grader said.
The X Prize rules require that the two flights happen within 14 days. Before Wednesday's takeoff, SpaceShipOne's creators had ambitiously set the second flight for next Monday — well before the 14-day deadline.
SpaceShipOne was required to fly with a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers aboard, in accordance with rules requiring X Prize contenders to be capable of carrying three people.
Burt Rutan, the maverick aerospace designer, secretly developed SpaceShipOne with more than $20 million from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and is well ahead of two dozen teams building other X Prize contenders around the world.
The Ansari X Prize was modeled after the $25,000 prize that Charles Lindbergh won in his Spirit of St. Louis for the first solo New York-to-Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
The St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, noting the rapid development of air travel after Lindbergh's feat, hopes to inspire an era of space tourism in which spaceflight is not just the domain of government agencies such as NASA.
Even before Wednesday's flight, Richard Branson, the airline mogul and adventurer, announced in London on Monday that hisbased on SpaceShipOne by 2007.
Branson believes he will fly some 3,000 people into space in the first five years that Virgin Galactic spaceline is operating.
And what's it like in space?
"You can see planets but not stars immediately, 'cause your eyes are very contracted from the bright light," said Melvill. But once the engine shut down Wednesday, the flight was "real smooth, real quiet and a beautiful, beautiful view."