Thrillionaires: The New Space Capitalists

An interview with Paul Allen about space entrepreneurship by John Schwartz in the New York Times.

"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. Mr. 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 70 miles up.

Mr. Allen is not the designer; that is Burt Rutan, the legendary aeronautical engineer with the sideburns that look like sweeping air scoops. He is not one of the test pilots who made the competition-winning flights; they are Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie. Mr. 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 the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who find themselves with money enough to fulfill their childhood fascination with space. Rick N. 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."

Link. Check out the sweet illo by Bruce McCall, thumbnail above. (Thanks, Susannah Breslin)