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Tired of waiting for government to open the space frontier, innovative aircraft designer creates his own | (UPI) -- MOJAVE, Calif Saying he is tired of waiting for government to open the space frontier, innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan Friday unveiled a dual-system space launcher that looks like it came straight out of "The Jetsons."

The winged SpaceShipOne is being designed for suborbital flights. Rather than lifting off from a ground-based launch complex, the vehicle's journey will begin attached to the underside of a twin-engine, high-altitude aircraft called White Knight, which made its first test flight last summer.

Rutan, who has been designing concepts for a suborbital manned spacecraft since 1996, began an extensive development program last April. The system, developed by Rutan's company Scaled Composites, made its public debut during a daylong media briefing on Friday.

SpaceShipOne is expected to reach an altitude of about 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, before gliding like an airplane back to Earth. It uses a hybrid rocket engine, with both solid and liquid fuels and its wings fold to enhance aerodynamic handling during re-entry. Inside the spacecraft, a crew operates in a shirtsleeve environment, with no need for pressurized space suits.

In addition, the ship features a simple and low-maintenance thermal protection system, according to a company press release.

Rutan said Friday he is planning to fly "as soon as the opportunity presents itself."

Scaled Composites says it already has a four-member astronaut corps. The company plans to enter SpaceShipOne as a candidate for the $10 million X-Prize, being offered by a privately funded foundation to the first team that develops and flies a manned reusable suborbital spacecraft twice within 10 days. Rutan aims to win the prize before the end of next year.

"If anyone can do it, that company certainly has a very good shot at it," said Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society.

Going from suborbital to orbital systems is another whole challenge, but "if it's successful, this certainly would be a significant step," Chase added.

Costs of the SpaceShipOne program are not yet known, though the company's Web site says projections place it "close to the cost of Soyuz ride," which reportedly is about $20 million. Passengers cannot purchase rides aboard SpaceShipOne, which is considered a research program. However, at the completion of the project, information about commercial operational costs should be available.

Scaled Composites, founded by Rutan 14 years ago, has designed and built dozens of prototype aircraft and spacecraft including the Proteus high-altitude research airplane, the Adam Model 309 business aircraft, Starship 1, the Predator agricultural aircraft, the CM-44 unmanned vehicle, the Scarab Model 324 reconnaissance drone, the Advanced Technology Tactical Transport and the 1988 America's Cup wing sail.

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