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SpaceShipOne in blue
The SpaceShipOne rocket plane is illuminated in blue light at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Saturday night lighting served as a tribute to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who backed the prize-winning SpaceShipOne project. (NASM / Steven VanRoekel Photo)

It wasn’t just Seattle’s skyline that turned blue on Saturday night: Back east in the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum cast a blue spotlight on the history-making SpaceShipOne rocket plane in honor of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who provided the money that helped it fly to space.

Allen, who passed away last month at the age of 65 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, invested $28 million in the SpaceShipOne effort to power the project to victory in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for private-sector spaceflight in 2004.

In his autobiography, “Idea Man,” Allen said he came out ahead on the deal — not just because of his share of the prize money, but also because of licensing fees for the technology and the tax break he received from donating SpaceShipOne to the Smithsonian a year later.

Since 2005, the rocket plane has been hanging from the National Air and Space Museum’s ceiling in a place of honor, near Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

Last week, when former Microsoft executive Steven VanRoekel read about the plan to pay tribute to Allen by focusing blue spotlights on Seattle-area landmarks, a cyan-tinted light bulb went off over his head: Why not do the same with SpaceShipOne?

VanRoekel, who served a stint as the federal government’s chief information officer and recently became chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, was the perfect person to make the link: He helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014-2015 Ebola virus epidemic in Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and it was in that capacity that he reconnected with Allen.

“He was one of the first philanthropists to raise alarm bells and jump in to the fight,” VanRoekel recalled in an email to GeekWire.

VanRoekel also happens to be on the Air and Space Museum’s board of directors, so he asked the museum to consider getting in on the blue-light special in Allen’s honor.

“They came through with flying color(s),” he wrote.

The museum’s new director, Ellen Stofan, thanked VanRoekel for his suggestion in an email. “I think SpaceShipOne looks appropriately beautiful,” she wrote.

The legacy that Allen helped build with SpaceShipOne continues: The rocket plane’s heritage is reflected in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is undergoing key tests at Mojave Air and Space Port in California; and in Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, which is being prepared for its first captive-carry tests.

In 2011, Allen went on to found what could literally be characterized as the biggest spinoff from SpaceShipOne.

His Stratolaunch space venture is getting ready for the first flight of the world’s largest airplane, which is designed to carry rockets in an arrangement that’s similar to the way SpaceShipOne was carried by its White Knight mothership.

White Knight is now on display at the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash., and the museum has a SpaceShipOne replica as well.

Will Stratolaunch’s super-plane someday find a home beside SpaceShipOne at the Smithsonian? If so, they’re gonna need a bigger museum.

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