The list of companies Kamal Ghaffarian has founded reads like the pages of a science fiction novel: Axiom Space is building the world’s first commercial space station in partnership with NASA and also designed the next generation of astronaut spacesuits. (“The next time you see astronauts walking on the surface of the moon, they will be wearing Axiom Space spacesuits,” he adds.) Intuitive Machines builds lunar landers and will send one to the moon’s south pole in January (weather permitting), one of several launches it is planning that will open the moon up to commercial missions. Quantum Space is creating a space "superhighway" that will help spacecraft refuel and travel in the region between the Earth and the moon. And back down on this planet, X-Energy is making small, advanced (and meltdown-proof) nuclear reactors that can power everything from a remote military base to Dow's 4,700-acre chemicals plant on the Texas Gulf Coast.
All these businesses have a common goal, according to Ghaffarian. "We need to be a multi-planetary species and also be able to go to other stars. But until then, we only have one home, right?” he says, adding, with a chuckle: “If you sort of summarize everything, [we need to] take care of our existing home and find a new home."
The space industry is dominated by larger-than-life moguls who have poured money into rockets, rovers and rides into orbit. But, unlike Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, Ghaffarian, 65, is a rare example of someone who is a billionaire largely because of his space pursuits, rather than one who got into it after making his fortune. The key to that success? Culture, culture, culture, he says. But in a $546 billion business that’s still driven by the U.S. government, according to the nonprofit Space Foundation, it’s actually contracts, contracts, contracts.
"No one is better than Kam Ghaffarian at winning, on a competitive basis, dollars from the U.S. government," adds J. Clay Sell, the CEO of X-Energy and a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.