10/18/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Okay, Brian, have fun." With that simple send-off from a fellow pilot, Brian Binnie fired his engine and steered his craft out of this world and into the history books. Within a few minutes, SpaceShipOne—a technological hybrid somewhere between rocket and glider that is fueled by burning rubber and nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas)—shot from nearly 50,000 ft. above the California desert to just beyond earth's border with space. It safely returned about 20 minutes later to claim the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million purse awarded to the first privately funded manned craft to safely fly into space twice within two weeks. "I wake up every morning and thank God I live in a country where this is possible," says Binnie, 51, a former Navy pilot now turned astronaut. "That a band of people that believe in something can go forth and make it happen."
But what a band of believers. Created by record-breaking aviation designer Burt Rutan and financed with more than $20 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen (who will split the prize), SpaceShipOne will eventually land at the Smithsonian, but not before spawning a fleet of proposed craft designed to carry tourists into space that Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson hopes to have ready for takeoff in 2007. The projected cost of a ticket to gravity-free, utterly silent space: 8190,000, not including meals. "People will be more interested in looking out the window," says Branson. Binnie concurs: "The view is spectacular."