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SpaceShipOne makes third rocket-powered flight
Chalk up another booming flight of the privately-backed SpaceShipOne, the piloted rocket plane designed to soar to the edge of space and glide to a runway landing.

With pilot Mike Melvill at the controls — following release from the White Knight turbojet-powered launch aircraft high above the Mojave, California desert — SpaceShipOne punched through the sky today boosted by a hybrid propellant rocket motor. According to sources who witnessed the flight, SpaceShipOne appears to have reached an altitude of a little over 200,000 feet.

Scaled Composites of Mojave is the builder of SpaceShipOne, an effort led by aviation innovator, Burt Rutan. The financial backer of the project is Microsoft mogul, Paul Allen.

Today's flight builds upon a progression of 13 shakeout tests, mostly un-powered drop glides along with two engine-thrusting runs. The White Knight took off with SpaceShipOne at around 10:30 a.m. ET today with the rocket plane landing an the ground a little after 12 noon.

SpaceShipOne's builders are expected to release specific flight data regarding today's test flight as soon as they analyze the mission.

SpaceShipOne's first powered mission took place on December 17, 2003, with the hybrid motor firing for 15 seconds. A second powered flight occurred on April 8th of this year. In that trek, the motor burned for 40 seconds. A major contractor for the hybrid motor used in the rocket plane is SpaceDev of Poway, California.

Routine recording of multiple video streams on board White Knight and on SpaceShipOne are expected to help in pilot and engineering evaluation of the flight.

Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation of Pasadena, California provides the critical camera gear. They are also supplier of the RocketCam line of onboard video systems used on rockets, spacecraft and other remote platforms.

Hot pursuit

The step-by-step SpaceShipOne missions are keyed to winning the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million purse offered by the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis, Missouri. For the cash prize, however, the clock is running as the $10 million purse expires January 1, 2005.

The Ansari X Prize money is to be awarded to the first company or organization to launch a vehicle capable of carrying three people to a height of 62.5 miles (100 kilometers), then return safely to Earth, and repeat the flight with the same vehicle within two weeks.

Twenty-seven teams from around the globe are vying for the Ansari X Prize contest. The competition is modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize — won by Charles Lindbergh after winging his Spirit of St. Louis airplane solo from New York to Paris in 1927.

Federal go-ahead

On April 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it had issued to Scaled Composites the world's first license for a sub-orbital manned rocket flight.

The license came via the DOT's Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This federal paperwork gave Scaled Composites the go-ahead to fly a string of sub-orbital flights for a one-year period — the first license to authorize piloted flight on a sub-orbital trajectory.

XCOR Aerospace, also of Mojave, California, announced in April it had received a Reusable Launch Vehicle mission license from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license is the first for a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that is launched and recovered from the ground. Additionally, XCOR is now authorized to test RLV technologies prior to suborbital passenger travel. The company is not in the competition for the Ansari X Prize.

XCOR's launch license is for a technology test vehicle. The license does not yet cover passenger operations. It does, however, permit revenue-generating payload flights after initial tests are completed. "A significant feature of the license is that it allows the pilot to do an incremental series of flight tests — without preplanning each trajectory," said XCOR Government Liaison Randall Clague in a press statement.

Mojave mojo

Given all the rocket plane activity at the Mojave Airport, steps have been taken to have the facility certified as a spaceport.

Stuart Witt, General Manager of the Mojave Airport, envisions the site busily handling the horizontal launchings and landings of reusable spacecraft.

Witt said the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is reviewing an application to license Mojave Airport as an inland spaceport. In fact, the airport is already a natural center for research and development and certification programs, such as the rocket plane work of Scaled Composites and XCOR Aerospace.

Many see Mojave Airport as a magical nexus for safe, smooth coordination of general aviation activity and private aerospace development.

Mojave Airport, also tagged the nation's Civilian Flight Test Center, is situated away from major metropolitan areas, while being located near Edwards and China Lake military test ranges.

"Certainly Mojave is a premier location due to its proximity to the Edwards Air Force Base restricted areas," Burt Rutan told SPACE.com .

Adds Aleta Jackson, an XCOR Aerospace executive: "We look forward to flying our licensed spacecraft from the Mojave Spaceport." The town of Mojave — as well as the County of Kern — plan to help support the spaceport, such as designating land use that is compatible with an active spaceport, she said.

 
 
 
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