Tech Tycoons' Dream: My Own Private Spaceship

What is it about dot-com titans and rocket ships? Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com), Paul Allen (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Paypal) and John Carmack (Doom video games) are just the most famous on the growing list of middle-aged tech giants who want to build private spaceships.

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But let's say you're a very, very rich person and besides giving a lot of money away, you want to spend it on something big. Really, really big. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is part of a trend in that department. In 2004, he financed the first private passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports several billionaires are now pouring cash into private space programs.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos won't talk about what he's doing inside the warehouses he recently bought in the Seattle suburbs.

(Soundbite of traffic)

KASTE: The secretive billionaire isn't exactly giving tours and there's not much you can tell about the buildings from the street, either. There isn't even a sign. But joining me here at the security fence is Fred Satterstrom, who works for the local city and he has some indication of what Bezos is up to in there.

Mr. FRED SATTERSTROM (Director of Community Development, Kent, Washington): We required a conditional use permit because they were handling hazardous substances.

KASTE: And those substances would be?

Mr. SATTERSTROM: Rocket fuel.

KASTE: Rocket fuel?

Mr. SATTERSTROM: Yeah.

KASTE: It seems Bezos has come to this neighborhood of furniture stores and strip malls to build himself a spaceship. Only a few outsiders have been allowed a peak at the project, which Bezos calls Blue Origin. One of them is Adam Bruckner, Chairman of the University of Washington's aeronautics and astronautics engineering program.

Dr. ADAM BRUCKNER (University of Washington): I know the team that's been assembled by Blue Origin and they're top notch. They scoured the country for the best minds in every single field that's necessary to pull this off.

KASTE: Bruckner believes Bezos is trying to build a vehicle that can take off and land vertically. That is landing with its nose to the sky, thrusters on, like something out of Buck Rogers. And Bezos isn't the only one. Bruckner says the world of rocket science is being shaken up by a new wave of computer gazillionaires.

Dr. BRUCKNER: They are quintessential enthusiasts or hobbyists who have a lot of money. If I had a lot of money like they did I'd probably be doing pretty much the same thing, indulging in my passion.

KASTE: It's a passion that seems to correlate with having once been a teenage boy with a gift for computers. There's Elan Musk, who started PayPal and is now trying to launch satellites from the South Pacific. John Carmack, the guy who wrote the Doom computer game is now designing rockets in Texas. And of course, Paul Allen and Spaceship One. These former geeks have suddenly become the coolest employers in aerospace.

Mr. ADAM HENDRICKSON (University of Alabama): Really you want to, you know, sink your teeth into something that is part of the future.

KASTE: Adam Hendrickson is a recent aerospace grad. Forget NASA or Lockheed, he says, if you care about space, you want to work form the billionaires.

Mr. HENDRICKSON: They have the passion for space travel and there's nothing that's going to stop them, I think.

KASTE: Hendrickson freely admits that his enthusiasm comes out of watching Star Trek. The great thing now, he says, is it's possible to work for someone who shares those sci-fi dreams, somebody like Paul Allen, who has a special museum to display all his sci-fi memorabilia.

Jason Andrews, who runs a small space contractor in Seattle, says he admires the billionaires' ambition, but he also sees some risk in this pursuit of boyhood sci-fi dreams.

Mr. JASON ANDREWS (Andrews Space and Technology, Inc.): These people lock in on a solution early on and they tenaciously hold on to that, when it might be better to understand the bigger picture. And so to the extent that they have a vision from sci-fi and they pursue that vision can sometimes lead them down a dark alley.

KASTE: Still for some people that dream is coming tantalizingly close.

(Soundbite of answering system)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Zero G Aerospace, making space travel available to everyone. Please hold.

KASTE: Zero G Aerospace operates out of the basement workshop of Tom Gonser. He and co-founder Eric Gorrell are aiming more at the retail end of the space business.

Mr. TOM GONSER (Zero G Aerospace): The baseline is $50 a gram.

KASTE: That's' what they charge to lift your personal property to the edge of outer space. They have a compartment on a new rocket built by a private company in Colorado. Gorrell says their customers have sent them business cards, earrings and stamps.

Mr. ERIC GORRELL (Zero G Aerospace): It doesn't really matter what it is to a lot of these people when you get the e-mails and read the e-mails. It's more of it's gotta get there and I just gotta get it back and this is so cool because it's something I can touch and own and feel that's been in space.

KASTE: It is tempting to spend the 50 bucks to send my NPR card to outer space, but it's hard to explain why. For Gorrell and Gonser the urge seems to come out of the disappointed daydreams of their childhood.

Mr. GORRELL: You know when I was 15 I was saying, gosh, in 20 years, you know, shoot we'll be to Mars twice and we'll probably have, you know, Pan Am will be building their little thing on the moon and the Jetson's, remember the Jetson's? I mean, I thought by the time I was old, like I am now, that that would all be a done deal.

KASTE: But there's more to this than wish fulfillment, they say. They really believe that private space flight is the next big thing. Zero G Aerospace will lose money on its first load of business cards, but once the rocket proves itself, Gonser and Gorrell hope to become the kings of the space souvenir business. And in this respect the new space race is more 1990's than 1960's. These days, you got to have a business model.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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