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New operating system for space: High-tech tycoons
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 paid at least $20 million apiece for two rides into orbit and 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.
Unlike its competitors, Allen’s company isn’t relying on startup 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.
Allen said his interest comes not just because of the end of the shuttle program or changes in government funding for space, but he does see an incredible opportunity right now for the private sector to move the needle on space travel.
Allen’s company is looking at making money from tourists and launching small communications satellites, as well as from NASA and the Defense Department, said former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, a Stratolaunch board member who spoke at a Tuesday news conference.
Just three months ago, Griffin was testifying before Congress that he thought the Obama administration’s reliance on private companies for space travel “does not withstand a conventional business case analysis.”
This is different because it’s private money, with no help or dependence on government dollars, said Griffin, who served under President George W. Bush.
Allen and Rutan collaborated on 2004’s SpaceShipOne, which was also launched in the air from a special aircraft in back-to-back flights. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic licensed the technology and is developing SpaceShipTwo to carry tourists to space. But Allen’s first efforts were more a hobby, while this would be more a business, Logsdon said.
SpaceShipOne cost $28 million, but this will cost much more, officials said.
By John R. Bolton
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