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How tech titans gave a boost to space tourism

The suborbital spaceships built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline may look totally different, but financially speaking, they have something in common: They both have connections to Seattle tech billionaires.

The connection is obvious in the case of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, about six years after he founded Seattle-based Amazon — and he has said he sells off a billion dollars in Amazon stock annually to fund his privately held space company.

Today the Federal Aviation Administration said it has issued its formal approval for New Shepard’s launch on July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport, with Bezos and three crewmates seated on board. It’ll be the first crewed mission for the suborbital craft, which has been put through 15 uncrewed test flights over the course of more than five years.

Bezos’ trip is due to take place just days after Branson took a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity. Both trips are meant to blaze a trail for tourists and researchers to get a sample of the space environment, including a few minutes of zero gravity and wide-angle views of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

Blue Origin’s headquarters has been in the Seattle area from the company’s inception. But Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, has a less obvious connection to the Seattle tech community.

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Allen Family Foundation donates to COVID-19 causes

WA Food Fund at work
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation donated $1 million to the WA Food Fund, a statewide food relief program. (WA Food Fund / Philanthropy Northwest Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced two contributions to support people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington state, adding up to $2.2 million.

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Vulcan trims jobs, a year after Paul Allen’s death

Jody and Paul Allen
Jody Allen has taken the helm at Vulcan Inc. in the wake of the death of her brother, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (Allen Institute / Kevin Cruff Photos)

Vulcan Inc., the holding company created by the late Seattle billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is in the midst of a round of job reductions, sources have told GeekWire.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cuts publicly. Several of them referred GeekWire to Vulcan’s public relations staff for comment.

“Vulcan continually assesses its size and structure to ensure effectiveness and impact,” the company said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “We do not comment on personnel decisions. Be assured that Vulcan remains committed to tackling the world’s toughest problems.”

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Stratolaunch rebuilds team for monster airplane

Stratolaunch plane in the air
Stratolaunch’s six-engine, twin-fuselage airplane makes its first flight in April. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Stratolaunch is hiring — nearly a year after the death of its billionaire backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and five months after the company’s monster plane took its first and only test flight.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says.

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Stratolaunch flies world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch plane
Stratolaunch’s plane soars in a picture taken from a chase plane. (Scaled Composites Photo)

Stratolaunch, the aerospace venture founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, sent the world’s biggest airplane into the air today for its first flight test.

The twin-fuselage plane, which incorporates parts from two Boeing 747 jumbo jets and has a world-record wingspan of 385 feet, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California for a flight that lasted two and a half hours.

For more than seven years, Stratolaunch has been working with Mojave-based Scaled Composites on the project, which aims to use the plane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets. The first flight test had been anticipated for months.

“We finally did it,” Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said today during a briefing.

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Sources: Paul Allen’s foundation to add advisers

Jody and Paul Allen
Sources say Jody Allen is seeking outside expertise to help guide the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in the wake of the death of her brother, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. (Allen Institute / Kevin Cruff Photos)

Five months after the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the billionaire’s sister is taking steps to put her own stamp on a family foundation thought to hold at least $750 million in assets.

Sources tell GeekWire that Jody Allen, co-founder of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, is bringing fresh blood to the charitable organization. Among the names being mentioned as potential additions to the foundation’s board or to an advisory panel are former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Nancy Peretsman, managing director of the New York investment bank Allen & Co.

Three sources discussed the transition on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. No principals in the process — ranging from representatives of the foundation and the Allen family’s holding company, Vulcan Inc., to representatives of Ballmer and Peretsman — were willing to provide comment.

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Paul Allen’s research ship finds the USS Wasp

USS Wasp gun
One of the USS Wasp’s five-inch guns looms out of the murk of the Coral Sea. (Photo courtesy of Paul Allen’s R/V Petrel / Navigea)

The USS Wasp, an aircraft carrier that saw service during World War II from Iceland to Guadalcanal, has been located lying 14,000 feet deep in the Coral Sea 77 years after its sinking.

It’s the latest find chalked up to the R/V Petrel, a research vessel whose expeditions have been funded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his estate.

The Petrel has been plying the waters of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding seas for years, to document the resting places of historic shipwrecks and conduct scientific studies. The Wasp was found on Jan. 14 with the aid of a sonar-equipped autonomous underwater vehicle and a camera-equipped remotely operated vehicle.

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Wreck of the USS Strong found after 76 years

USS Strong propeller
A video view shows the propeller from the USS Strong at the bottom of the Kula Gulf. (Photo courtesy of Navigea / R/V Petrel / Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc.)

The USS Strong put in less than a year of service at sea, but the destroyer and its crew nevertheless earned a place of honor in the U.S. Navy’s history of World War II. Now the Strong’s legacy is once again in the spotlight, thanks to the shipwreck’s discovery by the research vessel Petrel.

The R/V Petrel’s expedition team, supported by the late Seattle billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., used sonar and underwater imaging to find the wreckage on Feb. 6, lying 1,000 feet deep on the floor of the Kula Gulf, north of New Georgia in the Solomon Sea. The latest find adds to the Petrel’s long list of World War II shipwreck discoveries, including the USS Indianapolis, the USS Lexington, the USS Juneau, the USS Helena and the USS Hornet.

“With each ship we find and survey, it is the human stories that make each one personal,” Robert Kraft, expedition lead and director of subsea operations for the Petrel, said today in a news release. “We need to remember and honor our history and its heroes, living and dead. We need to bring their spirit to life and be grateful every day for the sacrifices made by so many on our behalf.”

The Strong was launched and commissioned in 1942, and during the first half of 1943, it conducted anti-submarine patrols and supported naval mining operations around the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

Its final battle came on July 5, 1943, when the Strong was sent to shell Japanese shore installations to provide cover for the landing of American forces at Rice Anchorage, on the coast of New Georgia.

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Paul Allen’s research vessel finds the USS Hornet

Hornet gun
This 5-inch gun is part of the wreckage from the USS Hornet. (Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc.)

Chalk up another historic shipwreck discovery for the Petrel, the research vessel funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen: This time it’s the USS Hornet, the World War II aircraft carrier that was sunk by Japanese forces in 1942.

The Hornet is best-known as the launching point for the Doolittle Raid, the first airborne attack on the Japanese home islands after Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. Led by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the raid in April 1942 provided a boost to American morale and put Japan on alert about our covert air capabilities.

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Paul Allen’s deep legacy: Japanese shipwreck found

Hiei shipwreck
Guns of the Japanese battleship Hiei lie on the bottom of the Pacific. (© Navigea Ltd. / R/V Petrel via Vulcan)

A wide-ranging shipwreck survey funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is continuing after his death, and the latest discovery focuses on the Japanese battleship Hiei, which sank in the South Pacific during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.

Japanese researchers picked up the sonar signature of the wreck off the Solomon Islands a year ago, sparking a voyage by the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel to check out the site and get the first on-the-scene underwater views.

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