This Day In History: June 21

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On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne becomes the first privately owned spacecraft to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, above the earth, the generally accepted point at which “space” begins.

Pilot Mike Melvill, the sole crew member, took SpaceShipOne, or SS1 for short, to an altitude of 100.124 kilometers, just past the invisible boundary line, before beginning the long glide back to earth. When he landed at what is now the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, he had become the first commercial astronaut in history. The flight lasted 24 minutes.

SpaceShipOne went on to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, awarded to the first private company to send a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying three people past the edge of space twice within a two-week period. The winning flights took place on September 29 and October 4, 2004.

The SS1 was built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, a company founded by the noted aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Rutan had already gained fame as the designer of the Rutan Voyager, which in 1986 became the first airplane to fly around the world without landing or refueling—a feat that took nine days.

Like the Voyager before it, the SS1 was constructed of lightweight composite materials. Rather than launch from the ground, it was carried aloft by a larger jet and then released at about 47,000 feet to fly under its own rocket power, much like the X-15 hypersonic jets that played a key role in the early days of the U.S. space program.

The SS1 retired after winning the X Prize and now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., also home to the Voyager.

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