Ever since I was little, my grand vision of what I wanted to achieve in my lifetime was to set up a colony on Mars. Inspired first by films, and then by reading and research, I have spent decades telling family and friends how we live in an age where, in our lifetime, there will be a Christopher Columbus, who will discover and then colonise a new “New World”. The lasting impact of opening up space in the way that he opened up the planet Earth will not be superseded for millennia.
It is not possible to watch the video of the Curiosity Mars rover landing on the surface of the planet without being overcome by a sense of awe, and confusion about the immense meaning of what we are seeing. The fact is there wasn’t much time between the Soviet Luna 2 mission – the first man-made object to land on the moon, and the American Apollo 11 mission which brought the first human beings to the same place. We are just years away from history being repeated, this time on Mars.
There are two paths, as I see it, for an individual to achieve this. The first is to get the absolute best education in science and technology (tick), get into optimal physical condition (no tick), and apply to a government space program hoping to be either an astronaut, or to lead the project from the ground. Statistically, the huge level of competition means there is high chance of not getting a position where you genuinely make a difference. It becomes a career like any other, with success depending on factors like promotion and funding, and with huge personal sacrifices for yourself and your family.
The second path is “simpler”. First you make a fortune. Then you start your own space program. This seemed original, and even slightly out there, when I first started talking about it in the 90s, especially as the people I was talking to had rather more knowledge than me – my mother has a PhD in applied mathematics and worked on the Soviet space programme. And yet as we find ourselves in the second decade of this century, the race is very much on to see who will be the first to begin the colonisation of Mars.
While Russian oligarchs buy football clubs and American rappers buy basketball teams, silicon valley entrepreneurs who have succeeded on an epic scale aim somewhat higher when spending their fortunes. They quite literally shoot for the moon. Just 10 years after being founded by Paypal entrepreneur Elon Musk, Space X now has the NASA contract to ferry goods to the International Space Station, and so does Orbital Sciences Corporation. Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos both have similar privately owned space exploration companies. It seems that when your billions are made in an industry and a culture where the belief is that anything is possible, the scale of your next venture becomes even grander.
We are all faced with a choice – to take the easy option of the opportunities which life presents to us, or to go the hard way and create your own opportunities in a more inspirational field. The obvious opportunity in 2002 when I first started my business career was property. Somehow I had forgotten about my grand plan to build a colony on Mars, and instead focused on what was there to be taken. Ten years have passed, and property was certainly the right decision if I look at it in terms of financial reward, but it was a decision based on a youthful lack of true insight. What, really, is the best possible outcome of pursuing a lifetime in property?
Returning to Cambridge for this past year has put me back on track and reminded me that the world, like the universe, is a much bigger place, and that choosing the opportunity which is available will never be as rewarding as choosing a goal and pursuing it until you succeed. And the goal I choose needs to be a moonshot. It doesn’t matter if I fail – I’d rather find myself, at the end of my life, a true visionary like Elon Musk and having built the smallest building on Mars, than like Donald Trump and having built the largest building on Earth.