A few years ago a tech luminary in Silicon Valley told me about a very serious predicament that at the time only affected around 2,000 people on the entire planet. If you were one of those fateful few, he told me, it was a difficulty that would keep you up at night, staring at the ceiling with worry and constant anxiety. What was this insurmountable challenge? This Gordian knot? This unfortunate predicament only a few poor souls had to contend with? The challenge of being a billionaire, of course.
“Just think about it,” the luminary told me. “It’s nearly impossible to spend a billion dollars.” I laughed at the ridiculousness of this statement, but he went on, doing the math in front of me to make his point. “The most expensive Gulfstream jet in the world is $65 million; a couple of very fancy houses will cost you $20 million, $30 million total; many of the highest-end cars are only a few hundred thousand dollars each. You’ve done all that and you’ve still got around $900 million or so left to spend.” I responded, “Well, you could just give it away to people and organizations in need.” “Ahh, but you can’t,” the man said to me. “Are you just going to hand it to someone and hope they do the right thing with it? You have to build entire infrastructures to give the money away.” He went on to explain that you need to hire legions of people, often hundreds, including teams of lawyers and tax lawyers, finance experts, project managers, communications staffers, and so on, to manage the distribution of the money. “Just look at Warren Buffett. Rather than figure out how to give his money away, he just gave it to the Gates Foundation to do it for him.” Then, the man explained, there is the “problem” that your billions will only grow, often quicker than you can give them away, with interest and rising investments. “Being a billionaire is a lot harder than it looks,” the man said.
There are two people on the planet who seem to have figured out how to spend their multiple double-digit billions without much trouble. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who have swapped places back and forth on the mantle of richest person on earth over the past year, are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar space race that is literally helping them burn through their fortunes while trying to be the first to make it to the final frontier. (A third person, Bezos’s ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, has also figured it out, giving away a round of grants worth $2.74 billion last week, on top of the nearly $6 billion she gave away last year.)
While the space races of the past were waged between the U.S. and the USSR, wrapped up in the blanket of the Cold War and nuclear threats and international espionage, today’s space race between Bezos and Musk is quite different, comprising a few media- and Twitter-obsessed billionaires who some argue have too much money for their own good.
The two come at the race with different perspectives. Bezos thinks the world is a wonderful place that we’re going to destroy with industry and pollution, and if only we can get that stuff on the moon, or Mars, we’ll be just fine here on this big blue dot. Musk, always the pessimist, thinks the earth is well and truly fucked from climate change and that the only way to save us humans is to escape to another planet, preferably Mars, and get a sort-of do-over. And then there’s the other guy in all this, Richard Branson, who just wants to have a good, thrill-seeking time on a flight to space. While their goals are all different, their unmitigated ambitions are not, with some worrying they’re pushing the boundaries of safety and logic all just to be first.
This became increasingly relevant earlier this month when Bezos announced out of nowhere that he would be flying to the edge of space with his brother, Mark, aboard a rocket built by Bezos’s space company, Blue Origin, on July 20, which is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. (Branson, not one to be outdone by another billionaire, is trying to scramble to beat Bezos on the space voyage, but likely won’t pull it off in time.) Musk, who likes to do everything in a bigger, better way, is hoping to land humans on Mars by 2026.
It might seem truly crazy that Bezos, who has largely had the biggest impact on retail in history, would risk his life to fly on a rocket when so many previous spacecraft have blown up. (Unlike SpaceX, which seems to relish in the loss of rockets, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which Bezos will be flying on, has only had one intentional crash landing and more than a dozen successful flights.) But there is actually a reason for this stunt. Bezos announced earlier this year that he would be stepping down as CEO of Amazon and focusing most of his time on his space-related pursuits, but he is also contending with one of the biggest egos and attention seekers in business, that being Elon Musk. In April, Musk’s company SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to build a moon lander, beating Blue Origin. Bezos was so unhappy with the outcome that his company challenged NASA over the deal, filing a 50-page protest with the federal Government Accountability Office.
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