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Sunday, June 20, 2004

MSNBC: The Last Word: Paul Allen
chabot imageThis Monday a sleek rocket-powered glider named SpaceShipOne will lift off from an airfield 95 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert and thrust to the very edge of space. It will be a historic achievement: the first piloted spacecraft built and launched not by a government but by a private company, Scaled Composites, whose founder, Burt Rutan, is a legend in the field of aircraft design. But Rutan couldn't have reached this milestone without the deep pockets of backer Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and the fifth richest man in the world. Normally reluctant to talk to the press, the 51-year-old Allen spoke to NEWSWEEK's Brad Stone last week about why he spent a rumored $30 million on the project, the risks of manned space travel and President George W. Bush's timetable for sending Americans back to the moon and on to Mars. Excerpts:

STONE: Why did you fund this project?
ALLEN: I was looking for possible space-related endeavors that I could participate in. Burt is a very talented guy, and any projects you'd want to do, Burt is the person to talk to. He has such an innovative mind and a great team of people familiar with how you could [build] unusual vehicles. He and his team are experts at using carbon composites to build very light but very strong vehicles. And then the X Prize [a $10 million prize for the first private spacecraft to reach suborbital space] got announced. Through friends I met with Burt, and we hit it off right away. He started sketching ideas.
Why did you keep your investment a secret for so long?
Since the X Prize is a competition, I wanted to keep it under wraps. We have a modest budget, but maybe it is higher than some other teams. Keeping it secret helped give us the lead.
What were your thoughts about the risks of this project after the space-shuttle Columbia tragedy?
Anything like that heightens your awareness of the risks involved. But it's not like Burt or I or any of his team weren't aware of them. We didn't stop work.
Are we on the verge of a commercial space-tourism industry?
We have shown that you can construct a vehicle like this with a modest budget. The big question is, how many people will sign up, and will they pay $50,000 to $200,000 to go on one of those flights. It's not something I would contemplate unless I had partners willing to share the risk. I'm not personally really looking much beyond Monday, and then winning the X Prize. Read More


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