SEATTLE – The tycoons of cyberspace are looking to bankroll America’s resurgence in outer space, reviving “Star Trek” dreams that first interested them in science.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made the latest step Tuesday, unveiling plans for a new commercial spaceship that, instead of blasting off 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.com Inc. in a new private space race that attempts to fill the gap left when the U.S. government ended the space shuttle program.
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 Allen’s venture, which is called Stratolaunch. Bezos is building a rival private spaceship.
Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who collaborated with the tycoon in 2004 to win a $10 million prize for the first flight of a private spaceship that went into space but not orbit.
Allen says his enormous airplane 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,” Allen said.
Their plane will have a 380-foot wingspan – longer than a football field and wider than the biggest aircraft ever, 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 program was the symbol of aspiration,” said Allen, who mentioned his love of science fiction and early human spaceflights. “For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible.”
For those attracted to difficult technical challenges, space is the ultimate challenge, Allen said.
“It’s also the ultimate adventure. We all grew up devouring science fiction and watching Mercury and Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. And now we are able to be involved in moving things to the next level,” he said, adding that he admires people who have gone into space to experience it, such as his former Microsoft colleague Charles Simonyi.
Allen is not alone in having such dreams, and the money to gamble on making them come true.
Bezos set up the secretive private space company Blue Origin, which has received $3.7 million 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 high-tech … at least individuals in their 40s and 50s,” said Peter Diamandis, who created the space prize Allen won earlier and is a high-tech mogul-turned space business leader himself. “Now they’re coming full circle.”
Diamandis helped found a company that sends tourists to space for at least $25 million a ride, and seven of the eight rides involved high-tech executives living out their space dreams. Simonyi, who paid at least $20 million apiece for two rides into orbit, attended Allen’s Tuesday news conference, saying he wouldn’t mind a third flight.
“Space has a draw for humanity,” not just high-tech billionaires, Simonyi said, but he acknowledged that most people don’t have the cash to take that trip.
Space experts welcome the burst of high-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 revitalizing a sector that makes it 21st century.”
But Logsdon said the size of the capsule and rocket going to space seemed kind of small to him, only carrying 13,000 pounds. It didn’t seem like a game-changer, he said.
Stratolaunch’s air-launch method is already used by an older rocket company, Orbital Sciences Corp., to launch satellites. It’s also the same method used by the first plane to break the sound barrier more than 50 years ago.
Stratolaunch, to be based in Huntsville, Ala., bills its method of getting to space as “any orbit, any time.” Rutan will build the carrier aircraft, which will use six 747 engines. The first unmanned test flight is tentatively scheduled for 2016.
NASA, in a statement, welcomed 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.”
Unlike its competitors, Allen’s company isn’t relying on start-up money from NASA, which is encouraging private companies to take the load of hauling cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The space agency, which retired the space shuttle fleet earlier this year, plans to leave that more routine work to private companies and concentrate on deep space human exploration of an asteroid, the moon and even Mars.