Attempt set for first private, manned rocket

? 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, nongovernmental 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.