June 22, 2004 -- The final frontier just got a lot closer thanks to an entrepreneur with a hankering for space travel.
On Monday, Scaled Composites LLC, a small, California-based aviation firm backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, launched its first rocket into space, making it the first privately financed spacecraft to reach the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.
The spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, is the brainchild of Burt Rutan, who became famous for his design of the Voyager, an aircraft that circumnavigated the earth in 1986 without refueling.
Under the command of test pilot Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne reached a record breaking altitude of 328,491 feet (approximately 62 miles or 100 km) Monday, after taking off from the Mojave desert.
"This flight begins an exciting new era in space travel," said Allen, the sole sponsor in the SpaceShipOne program, in a statement. "Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites are part of a new generation of explorers who are sparking the imagination of a huge number of people worldwide and ushering in the birth of a new industry of privately funded manned space flight." Allen has put more than $20 million into the project so far.
Scaled Composites executives emphasized the private backing of the venture, noting it was the first time such an achievement was made outside of a government agency. "Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures," Rutan said. "It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."
Elsewhere, there are efforts to continue private enterprise in space travel. The X-Prize Foundation has set aside a $10 million prize for the first privately funded aircraft to take three passengers, or the equivalent weight, 62 miles above earth twice within two weeks. The X-Prize is the modern-day equivalent of the $25,000 prize given to Charles Lindbergh for his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. Twenty-three companies are currently competing for the prize.
When the contest is won the state of New Mexico has agreed to put up at least $9 million for the construction of a space station, which will is purposed to be used by civilian space tourists and space-bound cargo planes alike.