随着这则消息的公布，艾伦终于重返他于10年前离开的“太空极客”兄弟会。10年前，他和伯特•鲁坦合作开发了第一艘私营的载人飞船“太空船一号（SpaceShipOne）”。这个兄弟会还有3位杰出成员。理查德•布兰森（估计资产净值：42亿美元）的“维珍银河号（Virgin Galactic）”打算进行亚轨道太空之旅。搭乘艾伦这架飞机的火箭将由马一龙（估计资产净值：6.8亿美元）旗下的太空探索技术公司（SpaceX）制造生产。伯特•鲁坦的公司将成为这架飞机的制造商。亚马逊网站（Amazon）创始人杰夫•贝索斯（估计资产净值：191亿美元）创建的“蓝色起源”(Blue Origin)公司，也在努力开发人类太空旅行业务。
在被问及他打算向平流层发射系统公司投资多少钱时（艾伦是唯一的投资者），艾伦闪烁其词，不愿给出确切的数字。“显然，这不是一笔小买卖，”他在接受《纽约时报》（The New York Times）采访时说。艾伦试图声称，他这样做是有利益动机的：“这显然是一笔很大的初始投资，要是我们觉得未来在货运和载人飞行领域不会有很多客户的话，我们就不会投这笔钱了。”
作为富翁，艾伦并没有赢得多少尊敬。大约10年前，我的一位前同事劳拉•里奇曾写过一本书：《意外的超级富豪：揭开保罗•艾伦的神秘面纱》（The Accidental Zillionaire: Demystifying Paul Allen）。这个书名说出了一个公认的看法：比尔•盖茨和史蒂夫•鲍尔默才是微软公司（Microsoft）真正的大脑。至于艾伦嘛，他发财纯粹是运气使然。艾伦的财富在1999年一度高达400亿美元，自那以后，他因为好几笔考虑欠妥的投资而备受嘲讽。此外，在一些人的心目中，艾伦俨然成为造就他的“硅谷城”中一位靠吃专利发家的恶棍。
Leave it to a tech billionaire to once again raise the bar on space exploration. With news that Paul Allen plans to build the largest plane ever—the wings will be 385 feet long—geeks all over the world are surely rejoicing. The plane, which will be made by Allen's new company, Stratolaunch Systems, isn't for passenger travel, at least initially. It's meant to launch rockets into space from 30,000 feet, thereby eliminating costly launching pads.
With the announcement, Allen rejoins the "geeks-in-space" fraternity that he walked away from a decade ago after he and Burt Rutan developed SpaceShipOne, the first privately manned rocket to reach space. There are three other prominent members of the frat. Richard Branson (estimated net worth: $4.2 billion) has Virgin Galactic, which is aiming for suborbital space travel. Elon Musk ($680 million), whose SpaceX makes rockets and will make the rockets that hitch a ride on Allen's plane. (Burt Rutan's company will make the actual plane.) And Amazon's (AMZN) Jeff Bezos ($19.1 billion) with Blue Origin, also focused on human space flight.
When asked how much he planned to invest in Stratolaunch—Allen is the sole investor—he demurred. "Obviously, this is not inexpensive," he told The New York Times. Allen tried to claim there was a profit motive at play: "This is obviously a big initial investment that we wouldn't be making if we didn't think there were going to be a lot of customers out there, both for cargo and manned missions in the future."
Cargo? Come on, Paul. You can admit it—this is not about making money. It's about doing something cool with those big bushels of cash you have sitting around your house. And for that, we salute you.
As far as the rich go, Allen doesn't get much respect. Almost ten years ago, Laura Rich, a former colleague of mine, wrote The Accidental Zillionaire: Demystifying Paul Allen. The title said it all: the received wisdom was that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were the real brains behind Microsoft (MSFT), and Allen, whose fortune peaked at $40 billion in 1999, was, well, accidentally rich. He's been ridiculed for a number of ill-conceived investments since then, as well as for turning into a scourge of the figurative town that made him—Silicon Valley—in the guise of a patent troll.
In the twelve years since it peaked, Allen's cash pile has dwindled steadily downward, to a recently estimated $13.2 billion. That said, Bill Gates, who peaked at $85 billion, is down substantially as well. But not by nearly as much: whereas Allen's fortune is today worth just 33% of its high, Gates has managed to hold onto 69% of his, or $59 billion. Allen, who didn't respond to a request for comment, was richer than Warren Buffett in 1999—the Oracle of Omaha was just worth $31 billion—but today Buffett is worth three times as much.
But I come here not to criticize Allen, but to praise him. After all, how much money does a billionaire really need?