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Private Manned Rocket Plane Reaches Space

Hundreds of people gathered in the Mojave Desert Monday morning to watch as the first-ever privately financed manned rocket ship soared to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere. In a 90-minute flight, 62-year-old Mike Melvill piloted the plane more than 60 miles up into the atmosphere and then glided back down to a landing at Mojave Airport.

SpaceShipOne began the flight attached to a special jet called White Knight. At 46,000 feet the spacecraft detached, and moments later, Melvill ignited the rocket that shot the craft to the top of its trajectory.

The Scaled Composites project is the brainchild of aeronautics entrepreneur Burt Rutan, and is being bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft. In 1986, his elegant Voyager aircraft was the first to fly around the world without refueling.

Government space programs such as those in the United States and Russia have been sending humans into orbit for decades. But SpaceShipOne, a rocket plane about the size of an oversized car, is the first successful manned venture by a private company.

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David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.