SEATTLE - Most kids discard dreams of becoming an astronaut as fast as they abandon childhood toys. But when the kid is Paul Allen, and he grows from geek with smudged eyeglasses to one of the richest men in the world, dreams can become reality.
Decades after his spacetraveling fantasies were derailed by near-sightedness, Allen spent $20 million to help launch SpaceShipOne, which last year became the first privately manned rocket to make it into space.
It’s one of many ways in which the co -founder of Microsoft Corp. has seen his youthful wonders and hobbies writ large by his vast wealth — estimated at $20 billion — since retiring from Microsoft in 1983 after being treated for Hodgkin’s disease.
His longtime love of Jimi Hendrix is immortalized in the $240 million Experience Music Project, a shrine built in his Seattle hometown to Hendrix and all things rock ’n’ roll.
His lifetime devotion to science fiction is brought to life at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, a haven for anyone who’s ever wondered what Captain Kirk’s chair really looks like up close.
His childhood fascination with building model airplanes is behind a collection of meticulously restored World War II fighter planes — real ones, not miniatures — housed in a nondescript hangar in rural Arlington.
Whether buying professional sports teams or putting $100 million into brain research, Allen, a college dropout who started Microsoft with his childhood friend Bill Gates, describes his approach as personal.
Many of his ventures, he says, sprang from a simple question: ‘‘What do I love?’’
‘‘I have a very broad set of interests, from music to philanthropy to technology to aerospace-related things, and that’s been true going back to my childhood,’’ he says, noting that his parents, a librarian and a teacher, encouraged his curiosity. ‘‘I’m in the fortunate position of being able to explore my different interests.’’
Allen was 30, an age when careers are just starting, when he left Microsoft. His brush with life-threatening cancer at first spurred a desire to simply live life, he says.
‘‘I kind of said, ‘Well, I need to take a step back here and do some things I haven’t done before that I’ve always wanted to do,’ ’’ he says. He went skiing and scuba diving and traveled through Europe, but eventually decided to start dabbling again in technology and other pursuits.
The new chapter of his life soon absorbed him.
‘‘Once I dive into something, I tend to dive in, I guess, head first,’’ Allen says.
He describes his investments since then as a mix of luck and curiosity; they are also a mix of for-profit and charitable. And some are just for himself, his family and friends.
Allen owns a 413-foot yacht called the Octopus, believed to be the world’s largest one in private hands; an impressive collection of airplanes, including two Boeing 757s; and a 7.7-acre compound he shares with his mother and sister outside of Seattle that’s valued at $121 million.
But while Allen might entertain celebrities on his yachts and is occasionally seen at film festivals and other events where his projects are being showcased, he tends to shun media attention and the spotlight — especially when it comes to his personal life. Though published reports have linked him to actress Laura Harring, who costarred in ‘‘Mulholland Drive,’’ his representatives won’t comment.
Allen, No. 3 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest people, was ranked No. 9 on Business Week’s annual list of the 50 most generous philanthropists. His Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has given around $246 million in the past seven years, including about $30 million last year. Between the foundation and his personal donations, he has given more than $800 million to date.
The causes vary widely, from a $500,000 gift to the nonprofit Plymouth Housing Group in Seattle, which seeks to provide low-income housing to homeless people, to $10,000 to replace a dance floor at the University of Idaho.
Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, said Allen’s penchant to pursue a vast variety of quirky projects — like the trip to space or the music museum — gives many nonprofits hope that he will fund projects that might otherwise go ignored.
‘‘I think people at nonprofits are frustrated that there isn’t more opportunity to do things like that,’’ Palmer said.
Allen also has invested heavily in cultural icons that aren’t traditional philanthropies. An avid sports fan, he owns basketball’s Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Seahawks football team and Sporting News. A movie buff, he has his own production company, was a major backer of DreamWorks Animation and rehabilitated a favorite theater in his hometown.
Marita Sturken, a University of Southern California associate professor who studies American culture, compares Allen’s range of investments to those of past tycoons and says, ‘‘He’s projecting a new version of what our culture values (are), which is much more . . . about a kind of embrace of things popular.’’
‘‘It’s about gaining cultural capital,’’ Sturken says.
Like any good businessman, Allen seizes on opportunity. He contributed $100 million to develop the Allen Institute for Brain Science because he believes technology can be used to cull through the vast amount of data needed to better understand how the brain works. The inaugural Allen Brain Atlas project is working to create a revolutionary 3-D map of the brain.
Still, the reclusive bachelor billionaire, who turns 52 on Jan. 21, insists his projects are not just self-indulgent. His massive donation to brain research may also be motivated by a desire to leave a lasting legacy.
‘‘I’m trying to do some things now with the Brain Institute and understanding the genetics of the brain. I’m not sure where that’s going to lead but it could lead to some real breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain,’’ he said. ‘‘Who knows?’’
When he decides to fund other projects, Allen says he looks for the untested method, or the promising idea that no one seems particularly eager to back.
Richard Hutton tried for years in the mid-1980s to raise money for a documentary on evolution, but eventually gave up. Years later, he was sitting at his desk at Walt Disney Imagineering when he received a call from an old friend in public television who had unbelievable news: Allen had decided to singlehandedly fund a series on evolution.
Hutton was floored. He spent three years on the series and now works for Vulcan Productions, Allen’s independent film production company.
Allen has also invested billions in business pursuits, many centered on the idea of a ‘‘wired world,’’ which would meld tasks like computing, accessing the Internet, making phone calls and watching television. But the grandiose vision hasn’t spawned the next Microsoft.
Allen says he isn’t just investing to make money.
‘‘I want to see good financial returns, but also to me there’s the extra psychic return of having my creativity and technological vision bear fruit and change the world in a positive way,’’ he says.
After underwriting a new approach to space travel or creating a museum that may inspire the next Hendrix to pick up a guitar, it’s hard to say what’s next for Paul Allen.
He does say this: ‘‘I’m not near the end of the story.’’