MOJAVE, Calif. - An ungainly-looking rocket plane punched through the Earth's atmosphere and then glided home to a desert landing Monday in history's first privately financed manned spaceflight - a voyage that could hasten the day when the final frontier is opened up to paying customers.
Pilot Mike Melvill took SpaceShipOne to 328,491 feet, or 62.2 miles above Earth, just a little more than 400 feet above the distance scientists widely consider to be the boundary of space. The flight lasted 90 minutes.
The spaceship - with its fat fuselage and stubby white wings - was carried aloft under the belly of a carrier jet. The jet then released the spaceship, and its rocket engine ignited, sending it hurtling toward space at nearly three times the speed of sound. It left a vertical white vapor trail in the brilliant blue sky.
SpaceShipOne touched down in the Mojave Desert at 8:15 a.m. to cheers and applause.
Melvill, 63, said seeing the curvature of the Earth was "almost a religious experience."
"It was really an awesome sight," he said. "It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and it blew me away."
The flight is an important step toward winning the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award for the first privately financed three-seat spacecraft to reach an altitude of 62 miles and repeat the feat within two weeks.
The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers; the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.
Promoters hope that Monday's milestone and others will lead to a future where tourists will pay perhaps $20,000 to $100,000 for the opportunity to soar above the Earth's atmosphere, float in zero gravity and take in the sights.
"The door to space is finally open to the rest of us," said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, which wants to see space travel opened to people from all walks of life.
He said the team members "have proven that human spaceflight is no longer the realm of governments alone."
By contrast, Alan Shepard soared to an altitude of 115 miles in 1961 when he became the first American in space. That flight lasted less than 15 1/2 minutes.
The SpaceShipOne project was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who said the project cost more than $20 million. "I had my heart in my throat when I watched the launch," Allen said.
Although the flight appeared to go flawlessly, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan revealed afterward there was a serious malfunction when the craft's trim system failed, causing it to miss its atmospheric re-entry point by 22 miles. There was also a large bang during the flight, but SpaceShipOne's team did not know what caused that.
Hitting the target is important because once the plane re-enters the atmosphere, it becomes a glider and cannot simply fly to its destination. But Melvill said he had enough leeway built into the flight that he was able to return to Mojave Airport.
Although Rutan said the malfunction posed "no big deal" to the flight's safety, he said the system would have to be fixed before the plane could fly again.
"There is no way we would fly again without knowing the cause and without assuring that we have totally fixed it because it's a very critical system," he said.
Word of Melvill's feat quickly reached the international space station 225 miles above Earth, where astronaut Mike Fincke declared, "Fantastic."
"In some respects, we're all in the space business together, hoping and helping mankind to get off this planet and explore the stars. So we're really proud of them," Fincke said, speaking for the space station crew.
The Space Frontier Foundation, a private group dedicated to opening space to human settlement, compared the flight to Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic in 1927.
"Because this is the day a new space age begins - an age when the people begin to enter space on their own, without governments," said the group's founder, Rick Tumlinson.
During his brief trip, Melvill opened a bag of M&M's and watched the candies, uninhibited by gravity, float through the cockpit. "It was absolutely amazing, these M&M's were just going around. It was so cool," he said.
For good luck the veteran pilot had attached a tiny horseshoe to his flight suit. He said the jewelry was something he had made and presented to his girlfriend when she was 16. She became his wife a year later.
Rutan gained wide fame by designing the lightweight Voyager aircraft, which flew around the world nonstop without refueling in 1986.