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SpaceShipOne yesterday became the first privately-built and manned vehicle to reach the lower limits of space.

The craft - the brainchild of aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen - carried pilot Mike Melvill beyond the 100km (62 mile) official boundary and returned safely to its base at California's Mojave airport.

SpaceShipOne completed the first 14km (46,000ft) strapped to its White Knight launcher, after which it went solo with an 80-second rocket motor burn. The entire mission lasted 90 minutes.

Melvill's euphoria upon landing was evident. He had undergone a period of weightlessness during which - he told the assembled press and public - he had released a packet of M&M chocolate sweets into the cabin. TV news footage showed Paul Allen looking slightly less than impressed with this admission.

Nevertheless, the flight is a triumph for Rutan and Melvill's Scaled Composites, the firm behind the design. Although Rutan acknowledged one or two glitches during the flight - including buckling of part of the vehicle's structure covering the rocket nozzle and a missed re-entry point - he said that the team would now consider whether to go for the Ansari X-Prize.

To claim the booty for the first private space flight, SpaceShipOne must reach 100km twice in two weeks. The prize was conceived to kick-start private space initiatives and space tourism in particular.

And as for Mike Melvill, he described the experience as "mind-blowing... Absolutely an awesome thing." He rather sensibly added that he would "back off a little bit now and ride my bike". ®

Related sites

Scaled Composites
Ansari X-Prize

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SpaceShipOne ready for go
SpaceShipOne readied for 21 June launch
US edges closer to private space flight
FAA greenlights private spaceship

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