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SpaceShipOne Goes For The Prize

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen has sunk more than $20 million into developing a manned rocket that reaches space. Now he's hoping half that sum can be recouped - along with some bragging rights.

Allen's SpaceShipOne is scheduled to be launched Monday in an attempt to reach an altitude of at least 328,000 feet, or just over 62 miles, for the second time since Sept. 29.

That would qualify its backers to clinch the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to the first craft to safely complete two flights to an altitude of 328,000 feet - generally considered to be the point where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins - in a 14-day span.

The St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation is offering the bounty in hopes of inspiring an era of space tourism in which spaceflight is not just the domain of government agencies such as NASA.

The choice of pilot for the latest flight remained a secret. Both the last flight Wednesday and a test flight on June 21 were flown by Michael Melvill, who has been awarded the nation's first commercial astronaut wings by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Melvill is one of four pilots who have undergone special training to fly SpaceShipOne. He had difficulty controlling the ship during the June flight but still reached 62 miles. Last week, he flew a perfect trajectory to an altitude of 337,600 feet, or nearly 64 miles, but the ship began rolling as it neared space.

After a safety analysis, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan posted preliminary information about the rolls on his Web site this weekend to address what he called the "incorrect rumors" that have circulated.

The first roll occurred at a high speed, about Mach 2.7, but aerodynamic loads on the spacecraft were low and decreasing rapidly "so the ship never saw any significant structural stresses," he said.

The spacecraft rolled so often because the rolls started as it was nearing the edge of the atmosphere and Melvill could not dampen the motions with the aerodynamic controls, according to Rutan. Since aerodynamic controls don't work in space, SpaceShipOne is equipped with a reaction control system that uses jets of a compressed gas to control movements. Melvill used the system to successfully stop the rolling before reaching the peak altitude, Rutan said.

Ansari X Prize founder Peter Diamandis hoped the multimillion-dollar incentive would have the same effect on space travel as the Orteig Prize had on air travel. Charles Lindbergh claimed that $25,000 prize in 1927 after making his solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Major funding came from the Ansari family of Dallas. More than two dozen teams around the world are trying to win the X Prize, but only SpaceShipOne has reached space.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe came to Mojave to watch last week's flight, and Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, came to watch Monday's flight.

"I think it's an enormous step because what it does, really, is establish I think in the minds of the average American the fact that that this is something that you can actually consider in your lifetime," Blakey said Sunday.

Blakey's agency and members of the developing industry are in talks about regulatory aspects of space tourism, particularly the safety of the uninvolved public on the ground as well as that of passengers.

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