By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
The Proteus flights have broken many records
Burt Rutan, the man behind the only aircraft to fly non-stop around the world without refuelling, has unveiled what he calls the world's first private space programme.
The presentation of Mr Rutan's space hardware, said to be at a mature stage of development, will undoubtedly push the race to become the first private astronaut into its final stages.
A capsule, rocket motors and the aircraft from which the capsule will be launched into space have been shown for the first time at Mr Rutan's base in California, US.
Experts are taking the initiative seriously, saying that Mr Rutan's track record and new technology put him on course to win the so-called X-prize for the first non-government spaceflight.
'No dreams or mock-ups'
Mr Rutan says he is tired of waiting for others to provide affordable human space access, referring to the high cost of American and Russian manned spaceflights.
For the past two years, he has carried out what he describes as a secret and aggressive manned sub-orbital space programme in the Mojave Desert in California.
The capsule will be launched from a carrier aircraft
He told BBC News Online: "The event is not about dreams, predictions or mock-ups. We will show actual flight hardware: an aircraft for high-altitude airborne launch, a flight-ready manned spaceship, a new ground-tested rocket propulsion system and much more."
Mr Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, describes itself as the most prolific research aircraft development company in the world.
It has been involved in numerous advanced aeronautical projects such as the Voyager aircraft that flew non-stop around the world in nine days in 1986.
The company also had a major role in the Pegasus rocket which is launched into space from beneath the wing of a carrier aircraft. That technology has placed numerous small satellites into orbit.
The rocket and capsule that will take the astronauts into space will be air-launched from a derivative of his Proteus high-altitude aircraft.
Proteus has set three world altitude records for its class, reaching a height of 62,786 feet (19,137 metres) and carrying a one-tonne payload to 55,878 feet (17,032 metres) in 2000.
Scattered throughout the world, many teams are vying for the $10m X-prize for the first non-government team to launch a three-person crew into space and safely return them to Earth. It has to be done twice in 10 days.
Many competitors are using conventional rockets and balloons to take rockets to high altitudes - and more ambitious systems are being considered by others.
Not quite astronauts yet
But Mr Rutan is keen to say he has all he needs.
"This is not just the development of another research aircraft, but a complete manned space programme with all its support elements," he said.
"We are not seeking funding and are not selling anything. We are in the middle of an important research programme - to see if manned space access can be done by other than the expensive government programmes.
"After the unveiling, we will go back into hiding to complete the flight tests and conduct the spaceflights," Mr Rutan says.
Analysts are expecting an attempt on the X-prize early next year by Mr Rutan and possibly by one or two other contenders as well.