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Private, Manned Spacecraft Set for Launch

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Private, Manned Spacecraft Set for Launch

By JOHN ANTCZAK

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The stuff of pulp science fiction and children's adventure books could become reality this week high over the Mojave Desert, when an innovative rocket plane points its nose toward space.

SpaceShipOne will try to climb 62 miles up Monday morning, leaving Earth's atmosphere for a few minutes to become the first privately funded, non-governmental manned spacecraft.

The feat would set up SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan as the leader among worldwide contenders for the Ansari X-Prize, which aims to boost space tourism. The prize will award $10 million to the first privately funded, three-seat spaceship to reach 62 miles and repeat the flight within two weeks.

If the mission is successful, Rutan will then enter his rocket plane in the X-Prize competition, which includes more than 20 other teams from around the world.

It also thrills those who have been there before - pilots who earned their astronaut's wings on similar suborbital flights during the X-15 rocket plane program decades ago.

"I'm tickled to death that Burt's doing this," said Joe Engle, 71, who made 16 flights in the X-15 and commanded two space shuttle flights. "I think any way to demonstrate someone's desire to learn more about high-speed, high-altitude flight and make it safer for people downstream is a wonderful thing."

Thousands of people are expected to watch the attempt on the ground around Mojave Airport, about 65 miles north of Los Angeles. An unusual entrepreneurial aviation brain trust developed the craft in secret at the airfield and without the vast overhead of the national programs responsible for all previous manned spaceflights.

SpaceShipOne was built by Rutan and researchers at his Mojave aerospace company, Scaled Composites, a backyard operation by comparison to NASA's standards - but still an impressive back yard.

Rutan became a household name in 1986 when his Voyager aircraft made the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling. His projects include the popular homebuilt VariEze light aircraft, new business planes, remotely piloted craft for defense and science, the 1988 America's Cup wing sail, a crew-return vehicle for the international space station and an upcoming jet for another world flight attempt.

SpaceShipOne's financial backing - an amount still unspecified - came from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, whose rumored role was not confirmed until last December.

The entire program had been under wraps for years, originating as a concept in 1996, followed by some testing and then the start of full development about three years ago.

The low-profile approach lasted through a May test flight to an altitude of 40 miles. The builders then invited the public to watch the attempt to reach space. Motel rooms in the high desert town of Mojave, a 90-minute drive north of Los Angeles, sold out immediately.

Some secrecy remains. The decision about which of the project's pilots will make the historic flight was being withheld until a Sunday afternoon press conference by Rutan and Allen.

Looking like something out of an old "Tom Swift" story, SpaceShipOne has a stubby fuselage and a pointy nose covered with small portholes. There's room for a pilot and two passengers.

The rocket's nozzle extends out the rear, and wide stubby wings protrude from each side of the fuselage. Booms on each wingtip extend to the rear, flaring into tail assemblies.

Mission control is a truck equipped with antennas, telemetry radios, communications gear and avionics displays that duplicate what the pilot is seeing at the spaceship's controls.

Behind the scenes, there is a flight simulator, pilot training program, a rocket motor development company, a rocket test stand and other support equipment.

Weather-permitting, SpaceShipOne will be carried aloft at 6:30 a.m., slung beneath the belly of the White Knight, an exotic jet that resembles two slender sailplanes joined at the wingtips.

The mothership will take an hour to carry the rocket to launch altitude. Chase planes will tail them.

At 50,000 feet, the White Knight will release SpaceShipOne. Its pilot will light the engine and pull into a 2,500 mph climb, experiencing G-forces three-to-four times the gravity of Earth.

The rocket engine will burn for 80 seconds and then shut down. SpaceShipOne, its pilot now weightless, will coast to the peak of its trajectory and begin its descent.

The craft's twin tailbooms and the back half of each wing will rotate upwards at a right angle to the ship to create drag in the same way that feathering slows the flight of a badminton shuttlecock.

Re-entering the atmosphere, the tailbooms will rotate back to their normal position and the pilot will fly the unpowered ship on a 15-to-20-minute glide back to Mojave Airport.

"I think the pilot is going to be very busy and very focused," said Engle, the former X-15 pilot.

Enjoyment of the experience will probably come later upon reflection, he said.

"You don't have much time to notice what's going on. You're so focused and concentrated on the piloting task," he said.

The Rutan-Allen team has its sights on the X-Prize, but the $10 million would be unlikely to make a serious dent in the cost of developing SpaceShipOne, which Rutan and Allen describe only as modest. It's also clear they have their eyes on a much bigger prize.

"Without the entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of reach for ordinary citizens," Rutan said earlier this month. "The SpaceShipOne flights will change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, low-cost era in space travel."

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On the Net:

Scale Composites: http://www.scaled.com

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