Image: SpaceShipOne
Scaled Composites
The SpaceShipOne rocket plane, shown in this photo from an earlier flight test, has successfully made its second powered flight. The privately funded craft is designed for suborbital passenger space travel.
By Senior Space Writer
updated 4/8/2004 7:03:25 PM ET 2004-04-08T23:03:25

The privately backed SpaceShipOne suborbital rocket plane made its second powered flight Thursday.

Built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., the piloted vehicle was powered by a hybrid rocket motor to an altitude of more than 105,000 feet. The engine burned for 40 seconds, zipping to Mach 2, or two times the speed of sound, according to a source that witnessed the test flight high above the Mojave Desert.

SpaceShipOne's second successful powered flight was piloted by Peter Siebold.

No details about the flight have been publicly issued by Scaled Composites, although the firm did respond to inquiries that, indeed, the flight had occurred and a de-briefing about the vehicle’s handling during the test is under way.

SpaceShipOne’s first powered flight took place last Dec. 17. In that test, the motor roared to life for 15 seconds. According to another Scaled Composites source, Thursday's flight was the 13th airborne demonstration of the vehicle.

Extensive testing
Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne project is being led by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who heads the company. A major contractor for the hybrid motor used in the craft is SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.

The rocket plane and its carrier mothership, the White Knight, were rolled out in a public ceremony last April 18. Nearly a year later, the SpaceShipOne has undergone extensive piloted glide tests, and now two powered flights.

Scaled Composites has its eyes on snagging the X Prize, a high-stakes international race to fly a reusable private vehicle to the edge of space and return safely to Earth.

The X Prize Foundation of St. Louis will award $10 million to the first company or organization to launch a vehicle capable of carrying three people to a height of 62.5 miles (100 kilometers), return safely to Earth, and repeat the flight with the same vehicle within two weeks. Thursday's altitude works out to roughly 20 miles or 32 kilometers.

The clock is running
For the cash prize, however, the clock is running: The $10 million purse expires as of the end of this year.

Twenty-seven contestants representing seven countries have already registered for the X Prize contest, modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize for which Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris in 1927.

Just Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had issued the world's first license for a suborbital manned rocket flight.

The license was issued to Scaled Composites on April 1 by the DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This federal paperwork green-lighted a sequence of suborbital flights by Scaled Composites for a one-year period.

Safety first
The FAA suborbital space flight license is required for U.S. contenders in the X Prize competition. In its 20 years of existence, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed more than 150 commercial launches of unmanned expendable launch vehicles.

The license to Scaled Composites is the first to authorize piloted flight on a suborbital trajectory, the DOT statement noted.

While the highest criteria to issue a license are public safety, applicants must undergo an extensive pre-application process, demonstrate adequate financial responsibility to cover any potential losses, and meet strict environmental requirements.

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