The SpaceShipOne flight made Paul Allen the best-known member of a growing club of high-tech thrillionaires, including the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who find themselves with money enough to fulfill their childhood fascination with space.

Paul G. Allen’s first foray into rocketry, as he recalls it, was inauspicious.

“My cousin and I tried to build a rocket out of an aluminum armchair leg,” he said. At just 12 years old, the future billionaire raided his chemistry set for zinc and sulfur, and packed the fuel mixture into the tube. He got the formula right, but had not looked up the melting point of aluminum.

“It made a great noise,” he said, “and then melted into place.”

His rockets have gotten better since then, and a lot bigger, too. Mr. Allen, who became a co-founder of Microsoft, is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the pint-size manned rocket that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition last year as the first privately financed craft to fly to the cusp of space – nearly 70 miles up.

Mr. Allen is not the designer; that is Burt Rutan, the legendary aeronautical engineer with the sideburns that look like sweeping air scoops. He is not one of the test pilots who made the competition-winning flights; they are Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie. Mr. Allen is, instead, the one who gets little glory but without whom nothing is possible – he is the guy who signs the checks. And he did what the rich do: he hired good people.

Rick N. Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes public access to space, said the effort had become a geeky status symbol. “It’s not good enough to have a Gulfstream V,” he said. “Now you’ve got to have a rocket.”

Many self-professed “space geeks” say the possibility that entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of the Virgin Group may help regular people see the black sky – well, regular rich people, at least – has drawn away much of the excitement that government-financed human space efforts long enjoyed.

“It’s completely shifted,” said Charles Lurio, a space consultant with an interest in private efforts that goes way beyond ardent. “This is where the action is, not at NASA.”

The new generation of deep-pockets space entrepreneurs includes Mr. Bezos, who founded Blue Origin, in Washington State, and quietly announced this year that he had bought 165,000 acres of land in West Texas as a base for his eventual launching operations.

Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, created the rocket company SpaceX, and John Carmack, the creator of computer games like Doom and Quake, has been testing rocket designs through his company, Armadillo Aerospace near Dallas.

The engine for Mr. Allen’s craft was developed by SpaceDev, a company formed as a second act by another computer entrepreneur turned space man, Jim Benson. And Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, recently joined the board of the X Prize Foundation.

The rise of the space money men is a unique moment in history, said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, a co-founder of the X Prize. “There is sufficient wealth controlled by individuals to start serious space efforts,” he said.

What’s more, they are frustrated, he went on, adding: “The dreams and expectations that Apollo launched for all these entrepreneurs have failed to materialize. And in fact, those who look into it realize that the cost of going into space has gone up and the reliability has, effectively, gone down.”

For Mr. Allen, 52, SpaceShipOne was no set-it-and-forget-it bauble of a project. It was an expression of a lifelong passion, he said, a “love of science and technology, and what can be done with engineering.”

He recalled the widespread excitement in the 1960’s about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, when “I really got enthralled, and probably more than most kids.”

Science became his fascination, and with a librarian as a father, he soon learned that there was a book to answer each of his innumerable questions. Like many children, he would go down to the five-and-dime and buy plastic rockets that could be filled with water and pumped up with air, whose compression built up launching pressure. But he took it further, checking out books to find out “how the heck a turbopump worked” at the age of 11.

More here.