Aprivate rocket that blasted off from a New Mexico spaceportMonday suffered a malfunction shortly after takeoff and failed to reach space, the U.S. company behind the enterprise said.

Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, Inc., launchedits SpaceLoft XL rocket from the Spaceport America desert launch site in Upham, about 193 kilometres south of Albuquerque, at 2:14 p.m. Central Time following a delay of nearly eight hours. Therocket malfunctioned and veered off course at about 40,000 feet.

Thelaunch, billed as an early step toward making space travel affordable for the general public, was originally set for 7:30 a.m. It was delayed after a transponder would not communicate with White Sands Missile Range, about 53 km northeast of the site where the missile was to land, said Steve Homans, director of the state Spaceport Authority.

The telephone pole-sized rocket had a payload of about 50 items — including a zip-lock bag of Cheerios, cremated remains and several high school science projects— set for a 13-minute suborbital flight 112 kilometres above Earth. Mission directors said they hoped to recover the payload today.

The spacecraft, about six metres long and 25 centimetres in diameter, is capable ofdelivering payloads toan altitude of 225 km, and can carry contents weighingup to 50 kilograms,the company says.

More flights planned

A total of four UP Aerospaceflights were planned for this year, including oneslated forOct. 21that wouldcarry the ashes of actor James Doohan—best known for his role as Star Trek's chief engineer Montgomery (Scotty) Scott—and Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper.

Doohan, born in Vancouver on March 3, 1920,died July 20, 2005, at the age of 85 after suffering from pneumonia and Alzheimer's disease. He died on the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing that saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

UP Aerospacehas 12launches slatednext year, and as many as30flights for 2008 and beyond.

Monday's flight was conducted from a temporary launch pad at the Upham site, which is to be home to a state-built $225-million US spaceport.

British billionaire businessman Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, last year announced plans toheadquarterhis space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, in New Mexico and to launch flights from the spaceport by the end of the decade.

With files from the Associated Press