- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SEATTLE (AP) - 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 like Simonyi who have gone into space to experience it.

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.”

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