U.S. team reaches space in quest for $10-million prize

SpaceShipOne reaches space in bid for X-Prize on Wednesday. Contest seen as launch pad for ordinary citizens to travel to space.

A team of U.S. engineers successfully landed its privately built and operated rocket Wednesday, minutes after the craft reached space.

After a brief delay due to wind, a jet carrying SpaceShipOne took off at 7:12 a.m. local time from California's Mojave Desert.

Unofficially, radar suggests pilot Mike Melvill successfully guided SpaceShip One to 100 kilometres above Earth, the entry point to space, after unexpectedly rolling more than two dozen times.

Melvill, 63, said he may have caused the spacecraft to spiral.

"You're extremely busy at that point," he said. "Your feet and your hands and your eyes and everything is working about as fast as you can work them, and probably I stepped on something too quickly and caused the roll. But it's nice to do a roll at the top of the climb."

Controllers asked Melvill to shut the engine down early because of the rolling, but he kept going to reach the target, said SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan.

If the craft also carries the weight of three people to the limit within two weeks, the team will win the Ansari X Prize.

The $10-million US reward is modelled after the prize Charles Lindbergh won in his Spirit of St. Louis for the first solo New York-to-Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

The U.S. team, funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen, took the lead in the race in June with a test flight.

Two Canadian teams are also vying for the international prize.

SpaceShipOne's closest competitor, Toronto's da Vinci Project, had planned a test flight on Oct. 2, but postponed it because of what the organizers called "a lack of key components."

Many see the competition as a launch pad for a new space age, in which space travel becomes a possibility for the average citizen.

"If they do it pull it off, it will demonstrate that space travel is possible at much lower cost and shorter schedules," said Robert Zee, at the University of Toronto's space flight lab, before Wednesday's flight. "It will be a door opener for sure."

Another group, the Canadian Arrow team from London, Ont., is using a vehicle based on a Second World War V2 missile.