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The O’Neilleans are coming. In the 1970s, fed up with government bureaucracy, the Princeton University physicist and space advocate Gerard K. O’Neill became convinced that free enterprise was the key to extending humanity’s presence beyond Earth.
Now, as a flurry of newly formed companies unveil plans to mine the moon and asteroids, and a non-profit foundation seeks to launch humans to Mars, Dr. O’Neill’s entrepreneurial vision as well as a big dose of Silicon Valley wealth looms large behind it all.
“It’s the expansion of the economic sphere outward to where the resources are,” said Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, a Bay Area company that seeks to place the first privately financed lander on the moon.
Mr. Richards left Canada in 2009, discouraged by a lack of momentum in a space industry reliant on government contracts, but still dreaming about the Apollo moon landings that inspired his interest in space. After spending time among California’s venture capitalists, he realized he had arrived at the right place at the right time.
“I found the tribe that can do this and I never left,” said Mr. Richards, who spoke in Toronto on Thursday at a conference on commercial space development.
Prominent among Mr. Richards’s tribe are some of the region’s high-tech billionaires, enthusiastic fans of space exploration whose financial clout is like a blast of oxygen to the flickering torch of the post-Apollo generation. Mr. Richards, who launched Moon Express in 2010, counts former Microsoft executive Naveen Jain among his partners. Another recently formed company, Planetary Resources of Seattle, which seeks to extract the mineral wealth of near-Earth asteroids, is backed in part by Eric Schmidt Jr. and Larry Page of Google.
Industry watchers say the trend was already evident a few years ago with the capital that wealthy investors like Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos poured into ventures looking to ferry tourists into low Earth orbit. But the real watershed moment may have come last May, when PayPal founder Elon Musk, who heads the aerospace company Space X, saw his Dragon capsule become the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
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