Billionaires Build Their Own Rockets

NEW YORK -- Paul Allen's first foray into rocketry, as he recalls it, was inauspicious. "My cousin and I tried to build a rocket out of an aluminum armchair leg," he said. At just 12 years old, the future billionaire raided his chemistry set for zinc and sulfur, and packed the fuel mixture into the tube. He got the formula right, but had not looked up the melting point of aluminum.

"It made a great noise," he said, "and then melted into place."

His rockets have gotten better since then, and a lot bigger too. Allen, who became a co-founder of Microsoft, is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the pint-size manned rocket that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition last year as the first privately financed craft to fly to the cusp of space, nearly 110 kilometers up.

Allen is not the designer; that is Burt Rutan, the legendary aeronautical engineer with the sideburns that look like sweeping air scoops. Nor is he one of the test pilots who made the competition-winning flights. Allen is, instead, the one who gets little glory but without whom nothing is possible -- he is the guy who signs the checks. And he did what the rich do: He hired good people.

The SpaceShipOne flight made him the best-known member of a growing club of high-tech thrillionaires, including founder Jeff Bezos, who find themselves with enough money to fulfill their childhood fascinations with space. Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes public access to space, said the effort had become a geeky status symbol. "It's not good enough to have a Gulfstream V," he said. "Now you've got to have a rocket."

Many self-professed "space geeks" say the possibility that entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of the Virgin Group may help regular people see the black sky -- well, regular rich people, at least -- has drawn away much of the excitement that government-financed human space efforts long enjoyed.

For Allen, 52, SpaceShipOne was no set-it-and-forget-it bauble of a project. It was an expression of a lifelong passion, he said, a "love of science and technology." He recalled the excitement in the 1960s about the Gemini and Apollo missions, when "I really got enthralled, and probably more than most kids."

Tumlinson says the tech entrepreneurs are accustomed to putting powerful technologies into the hands of individuals against enormous odds -- a good foundation for the space business.

But NASA officials past and present say it is not that easy. While they praise the achievements of the Rutan-Allen team, they point out that there is a vast difference between reaching the cusp of space and building something that can withstand the punishing conditions of orbital space and re-entry.

Sean O'Keefe, a former administrator of the agency, called SpaceShipOne's success "a great achievement," but also "a modest first step."

Allen says he spent about $20 million on the project, which is about what he earns in interest while flossing. But he is in no rush to touch the rim of space himself. "After it's proven to be incredibly safe, I might consider it," he said. "I have a lot of things I want to see to fruition."