The dream of commercial space flight has taken an important step towards reality with the granting of the first licence to a private company to launch people to a height of 100 kilometres.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded the license to Scaled Composites, a California-based company run by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, for a one-year period.

The company is vying for the $10 million X Prize, to be awarded to the first private group to send three people to the sub-orbital height of 100 kilometres twice in two weeks.

Its contender is a rocket-plane called SpaceShipOne that will be launched from mid-air from a jet called White Knight. It is widely regarded as the front-runner for the prize.

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