First pioneers of cyberspace look to final frontier
THE tycoons of cyberspace are looking to bankroll America's resurgence in outer space, reviving the 'Star Trek' dreams that first interested them in science.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has made the latest step, unveiling plans for a new commercial spaceship that, instead of blasting off from a launch pad, would be carried high into the atmosphere by the widest plane ever built before it fires its rockets.
He joins Silicon Valley powerhouses Elon Musk of PayPal and Jeff Bezos of Amazon in a new private space race that attempts to fill the gap left when the US government ended the space shuttle programme.
Mr Musk, whose Space Exploration Technologies will send its Dragon capsule to dock with the International Space Station in February, will provide the capsule and booster rocket for Mr Allen's venture, which is called Stratolaunch. Mr Bezos is building a rival private spaceship.
Mr Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who collaborated with the tycoon in 2004 to win a $10m (€7.7m) prize for the first flight of a private spaceship that went into space but not orbit.
Mr Allen says his enormous plane and spaceship system will go to "the next big step: a private orbital space platform business".
The new system is "a radical change" in how people can get to space, and it will "keep America at the forefront of space exploration", Mr Allen said.
Their plane will have a 380ft wingspan -- longer than a football field and wider than the previous biggest aircraft, Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose.
It will launch a space capsule equipped with a booster rocket, which will send the spacecraft into orbit. This method saves money by not using rocket fuel to get off the ground. The spaceship may hold as many as six people.
"When I was growing up, America's space programme was the symbol of aspiration," said Mr Allen, who mentioned his love of science fiction and early human space flights.
"For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible."
Mr Allen is not alone in having such dreams, and the money to gamble on making them come true.
Mr Bezos set up the secretive private space company Blue Origin, which has received $3.7m (€2.8m) in NASA start-up funds to develop a rocket to carry astronauts. Its August flight test ended in failure.
"Space was the inspiration that got people into hi-tech. . . at least individuals in their 40s and 50s," said Peter Diamandis, who created the space prize Mr Allen won earlier and is a hi-tech mogul-turned space business leader himself. "Now they're coming full circle."
Mr Diamandis helped found a company that sends tourists to space for at least $25m (€19m) a ride, and seven of the eight rides involved hi-tech executives living out their space dreams.
One is a former Microsoft colleague of Mr Allen, Charles Simonyi, who paid at least $20m (€15.4m) apiece for two rides into orbit and attended Mr Allen's latest news conference, saying he would like a third flight.
Space experts welcome the burst of hi-tech interest in a technology that 50 years ago spurred the development of computers.
"Space travel the way we used to do it has a '50s and '60s ring to it," said retired George Washington University space policy professor John Logsdon. "These guys have a vision of revitalising a sector that makes it 21st Century."
Stratolaunch's air-launch method is already used by an older rocket company, Orbital Sciences, to launch satellites. It is the same method used by the first plane to break the sound barrier more than 50 years ago.
Stratolaunch, to be based in Huntsville, Alabama, bills its method of getting to space as "any orbit, any time". Mr Rutan will build the carrier aircraft, which will use six 747 engines. The first unmanned test flight is tentatively scheduled for 2016.
NASA welcomed Mr Allen to the space business, saying his plan "has the potential to make future access to low-Earth orbit more competitive, timely, and less expensive".
Mr Allen left Microsoft in 1983, and has pursued many interests since then. He is the owner of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team as well as the NBA's Portland Trailblazers. He also founded a Seattle museum that emphasises science fiction.