A pilot has flown the first privately financed manned rocket beyond the Earth's atmosphere and returned safely.

Spectators applauded as the spacecraft glided to a safe landing at 8:15 a.m. PDT on Monday in Mojave, Calif., about 90 minutes after it took off.

A jet named White Knight carried the rocket SpaceShipOne. The two aircraft separated at an altitude of about 15,240 metres.

SpaceShipOne's pilot Mike Melvill, 63, then fired the motor and accelerated to Mach 3, to reach the target altitude of 100 kilometres.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration presented Melvill with his commercial astronaut wings for reaching 100.1 kilometres, according to radar data.

"The colours were pretty staggering from up there," said Melvill. "It was almost a religious experience."

The test pilot said he could see the curvature of the Earth.

The flight was successful but not perfect. Melvill also said he heard a loud bang. On the ground, he suggested a part covering the nozzle on the back of the plane buckled, which may have caused the noise.

CANADIAN X-PRIZE CONTENDERS
Brian Feeney leads the Toronto-based Da Vinci Project, which aims to reach the target by flying a rocket lifted by a helium balloon. Geoff Sheerin's Canadian Arrow team from London, Ont., is using a vehicle based on a Second World War V2 missile. Both Canadian teams plan to launch their manned missions before the end of the summer.
SpaceShipOne could now compete for the Ansari X Prize, a $10-million US reward for the first three-member team to launch a spacecraft to an altitude of 100 kilometres, return to Earth and repeat the flight within two weeks in the same vehicle, without government or military funding.

The goal of the prize is to promote private space flight.

Aviation designer Burt Rutan created SpaceShipOne, which is funded by billionaire Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp. Rutan also designed the Voyager airplane that was flown nonstop around the world in 1986.

At least 25 other teams, including two Canadian groups, are registered to compete for the X Prize.