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Cyber tycoons look to outer space

The tycoons of cyberspace are looking to bankroll America's resurgence in outer space, reviving the Star Trek dreams that first interested them in science.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has made the latest step, unveiling plans for a new commercial spaceship that, instead of blasting off from 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 in a new private space race that attempts to fill the gap left when the US government ended the space shuttle programme.

Mr 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 Mr Allen's venture, which is called Stratolaunch. Mr Bezos is building a rival private spaceship.

Mr Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who collaborated with the tycoon in 2004 to win a 10 million dollar prize for the first flight of a private spaceship that went into space but not orbit.

Mr Allen says his enormous plane 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", Mr Allen said. Their plane will have a 380ft wingspan - longer than a football field and wider than the previous biggest aircraft, 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.

Mr Allen is not alone in having such dreams, and the money to gamble on making them come true. Mr Bezos set up the secretive private space company Blue Origin, which has received 3.7 million dollars in Nasa start-up funds to develop a rocket to carry astronauts. Its August flight test ended in failure.

Mr Allen's company is looking at making money from tourists and launching small communications satellites, as well as from Nasa and the defence department, said former Nasa administrator Michael Griffin, a Stratolaunch board member.

Mr Allen and Mr 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 Mr Allen's first efforts were more a hobby, while this would be more a business, Mr Logsdon said.

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