While government investment in the space race has dwindled as they tackle matters closer to home, a group of super-rich enthusiasts, many of whom are household names, are backing companies that each have grand plans for space exploration
The billionaires backing projects in a new space race
Deep pockets have always been needed to conquer deep space. At the height of the race to put the first man on the Moon, the American space agency, Nasa, was consuming nearly 5 per cent of all US government expenditure.
Nasa today must make do with barely a 10th of its former riches. Its annual budget is now just 0.47 of US public spending. Space exploration funded by governments has largely dwindled everywhere, as politicians grapple with more down-to-earth problems.
And yet we are living in a new golden age of space exploration. These new lords of the universe are fuelled not by taxpayers but shareholders and vast private fortunes. Private enterprise believes it can rival any nation in space, and do it faster and cheaper.
Taken together, their net worth is close to $220 billion - more than 10 times the annual budget for Nasa and higher than the gross domestic product of Portugal.
Google, which is sponsoring a $30-million prize to land on the Moon within the next year, is worth an estimated $565 billion, with annual revenues of nearly $30 billion. The combined budgets of the top 10 space nations, including Russia and China, is $39.7 billion.
The names and the companies they built are household names. They also represent the spirit of our digital age, in which wealth is accumulated in ways and quantities unthinkable even 20 years ago. Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, along with Google and Tesla.
These are natural-born risk takers. In space they see the chance to grow their wealth and power, whether it is mining asteroids or flying the first tourists to the Moon. Like most rich men they seek to become richer. But they also embrace the romance and thrill of the challenge.
Many were children or not even born when Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” but, perhaps more significantly, they did grow up in the age of Star Wars and Star Trek as their influences. The urge to boldly go is part of their DNA. They do not say why, but why not?
Jeff Bezos, 53, American (Amazon)
Estimated net worth: $78.4 billion
Company: Blue Origin
Founder of what is now the world’s largest internet sales company, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, with the goal of making space flight both cheaper and more reliable. With the New Shepherd (named after Alan Shephard, the first American in space), the company pioneered a reusable first stage rocket capable of landing under its own power. Its manned capsule could begin test flights as early the end of this year, with the current goal of commercial flights and a new age of space tourism by 2018. While Bezos prefers to keep the details of the project under wraps, he revealed recently he is cashing in $1 billion in Amazon stock every year to fund Blue Origin.
He says: “If we can make access to space low cost, then entrepreneurs will be unleashed, you will see creativity, you will see dynamism, you will see the same thing in space that I’ve witnessed on the internet over the last 20 years.”
Elon Musk, 45, South African/Canadian, American (Tesla)
Estimated net worth: $13.9bn
Visionary businessman, inventor and entrepreneur Musk made his first $100 million with the sale of PayPal to eBay, built the first electric sport car at Tesla and planned to build a high-speed hyperloop train that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes for the price of a bus ticket. SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the dual ambition of slashing the cost of space travel and colonising Mars. His Falcon 1 was the first rocket to to achieve a vertical landing of its first stage on an orbital flight and SpaceX has already flown 10 resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) in a contract with Nasa. His Dragon reusable spacecraft has been contracted to fly two wealthy private individuals around the Moon next year, the first lunar tourists.
In the long term, his Mars Colonial Transport provision seeks to send humans to the Red Planet around 2024, with a manned return to the Moon also on the cards.
He says: “ "In terms of people going to Mars, I think this is potentially something that could be accomplished in about 10 years, maybe sooner, maybe 9 years. I need to make sure SpaceX doesn’t die between now and then, and that I don’t die.”
Sir Richard Branson, 66, British (Virgin Group)
Estimated net worth: $4.9bn
Company: Virgin Galactic
Starting will a mail-order record company, Branson has built the Virgin Group into one of the world’s most recognised brands, with the Virgin Atlantic airline as its crown jewel. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, with the initial goal of offering suborbital space flight at $250,000 per ticket and with over 600 customers already said to have signed on, including a complimentary seat for the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Investors include the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, with a stake estimated at around 37.8 per cent.
After building a spaceport in New Mexico, the project suffered a serious setback in 2014 when its SpaceShipTwo craft VSS Enterprise broke apart shortly after being released from the White Knight mothership, killing the co-pilot. The replacement, VSS Unity, made its first unpowered test flight in December, but Virgin Galactic is now placing greater emphasis on its small satellite launcher, Virgin Orbit.
He says: “Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.”
Mark Zuckerberg, 32, American (Facebook)
Estimated net worth: $53.8bn
Yuri Milner, 55, Russian (Digital Sky Technologies)
Estimated net worth: $3bn
Company: Breakthrough Starshot
The fifth richest person in the world thanks to Facebook, Zuckerberg is only 32, with an established record as a philanthropist and talk of him one day running for president of the United States. His past experience in space saw a satellite he had funded, to provide fast internet to Africa, destroyed when Elon Musk’s Falcon rocket blew up on the launch pad in 2016.
Milner is a Russian venture capitalist and physicist now living in California whose investments include the WhatsApp Messenger and Airbnb.
With the support of Stephen Hawking, the two men last year announced the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot project, using tiny “nano craft” robotic probes that will use a system of light-beam propulsion to reach the Alpha Centauri star system in 20 years rather than the 30,000 years it would take using conventional rockets. After travelling 25 trillion miles, they will send back images and other data to Earth, including any evidence of alien life.
Zuckerberg says: “I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”
Milner says: "The human story is one of great leaps. Today we are preparing for the next great leap – to the stars. Can we literally reach the stars, and can we do it in our lifetime?”
Robert Bigelow, 72, American (Bigelow Group)
Estimated net worth: $1bn
Company: Bigelow Aerospace
The owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, Bigelow grew up in Las Vegas and witnessed some of the first atomic bomb tests as a child. His hotels and property interests, he says, were only created to make him wealthy enough to explore his true passion - space travel.
Bigelow Aerospace was started in 1999, with the intention of building habitable modules that could form an orbiting space station. His Genesis I and Genesis II modules were placed into orbit on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007, but his most notable success came last year when his experimental expanding space module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was attached to the ISS in a contract with Nasa.
Bigelow is working with Boeing on the CST-100 Starliner, a new crew capsule expected to make its first manned flight within a year.
Bigelow is a strong proponent of the view that the future of space travel lies away from government bodies and with the private sector.
He says: “Nasa is on its knees. It has had a terrible record over the past 30 years, and you say, well, why should the private sector get involved? The answer really is, why not? “
Paul Allen, 64, American (co-founder Microsoft)
Estimate net worth: $15.8bn
Company: Stratolaunch Systems
As the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, he may not have quite as much cash as his former partner, but still remains the 40th wealthiest individual on the planet, pursuing his passion projects, which include a hockey club and an American football team, along with an institute for artificial intelligence, a TV and film production company and donating $100 million to fight Ebola. Oh, and three megayachts.
Allen’s billions also funded SpaceShipOne, the prototype for the Virgin Galactic ships and the winner of the $10 million Ansari X prize in 2004 for the first private company to achieve two suborbital flights of a manned and reusable craft within two weeks.
Stratolaunch Systems was formed in 2010 with the objective of a three-stage launch system that can send a multiple payload into space from a high altitude carrier aircraft. Despite delays, it is hoped the test flight of the first-stage Stratolaunch aircraft - with twice the wingspan of a Boeing 747 - will take place later this year.
He says: “I think it's going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up and see black sky and the stars. I'd like to do it myself-but probably after it has flown a serious number of times first!”
James Cameron, 62, Canadian (film director Titanic, Avatar)
Estimated net worth: $700 million
Larry Page, 44, founder of Google and CEO of Alphabet, its parent company
Estimated net worth: $45bn
Eric Schmidt. 62, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company
Estimate net worth: $10bn
Company: Planetary Resources
Best known for plumbing the depths with the multi-Oscar-winning Titanic and his subsequent expedition to locate the real wreck, the filmmaker also ventured into distant star systems in Avatar.
While Cameron is still a few dollars short of the billionaires club, he is one of the investors in Planetary Resources, created in 2012 with the objective of mining asteroids for precious metals.
If Cameron is a relative pauper in this company, it cannot be said of investors Larry Page, the world’s 27th richest man, and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet.
The first stage of the project is to launch space telescopes with the objective of searching out suitable asteroids. Of the two test satellites, one was destroyed in a launch accident in 2014 while the other was successfully deployed the following year. No date has been given yet for the first full-scale asteroid detection satellite.
Cameron says: “I had read tons of science fiction. I was fascinated by other worlds, other environments. For me, it was fantasy, but it was not fantasy in the sense of pure escapism.”
Page says: “If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.”
Schmidt says: ”If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Naveen Jain, 57 Indian/American (Intellius)
Net worth (claimed): $2.2bn
Company: Moon Express
The Indian-born businessman and entrepreneur made his first fortune with the internet service provider InfoSpace - and then promptly lost most of it in the dot.com bubble crash of 2001.
Rebuilding his wealth, Jain currently claims to be worth $2 billion, and in 2010 founded Moon Express, which ultimately seeks to exploit the Moon’s natural resources for commercial purposes.
In the short term, the company has set itself the goal of winning the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, awarded to the first privately funded team to place a lander on the Moon, travel 500 metres and transmit photographs and video back to Earth. To win it, Moon Express must reach a launch deadline of December this year and has already purchased two launch slots from Rocket Lab’s Electron two-stage launch vehicle - which is still to make its debut flight.
He says: “When we land on the Moon, it shows that the entrepreneurs are now capable of doing things that were only done by the superpowers.