Mars Express and Phobos / European Space Agency

September 7, 2016, PBS Newshour

Until now, national priorities and peer-review groups carefully shaped science. Today, billionaires are eschewing traditional philanthropy in order to invest their wealth in initiatives they dream up to push the boundaries of science and to speed up or bypass evolution. Worried that the rest of the world won’t find its proper way fast enough, they are creating the future for us.

Moon Express just won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to set a robotic lander on the moon. Until now, all commercial companies have been limited to operations in Earth’s orbit. “The sky is not the limit for Moon Express—it is the launchpad. This breakthrough ruling is another giant leap for humanity. Space travel is our only path forward to ensure our survival and create a limitless future for our children,” remarks co-founder and chairman, Naveen Jain. (Here is Jain explaining sprightly on his blog, “How to be a Billionaire.”) If they are successful, Moon Express will win the Google Lunar X Prize competition and a $20 million award.

“Moonshot” is a a common term inspired by the Apollo 11 spaceflight project, which landed the first human on the moon in 1969. Today, that term is used to describe ambitious private projects without much attention given to the potential risks and without the benefit of the larger scientific community that would have a better idea about the risks. Such moonshots include Google Glass, Project Loon (a balloon-based Internet service project), the driverless car, augmented reality, a neural network, and life extension projects. ”I believe that evolution is a true account of nature,” Peter Thiel told the Washington Post. “But I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”

It’s the stuff of science fiction, which makes sense: The nouveau riche grew up inspired by the likes of Star Trek (Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Elon Musk).

Musk is about to announce his mission to Mars. Bezos’s Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic will one day soon take tourists into space. Google’s leaders plan to extract commodities from asteroids.

Other billionaires are intent on defeating death.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison has devoted almost half a billion dollars to anti-aging initiatives. “Death makes me angry,” he said. ”It doesn’t make any sense to me. Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”

Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative (according to its website) “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” Singularity University is a Silicon Valley think tank that encourages and helps to facilitate these and other private initiatives that will build our future.

The science of billionaires needs to have direct and open relationships with civil society in order to reflect the reality that exists beyond the insular world of privilege and power. Instead of stunting their imagination, the billionaire visionaries might find that having direct engagement with the real world can set them on a path to more fantastic discoveries than they would make on their own. Just as importantly, these billion-dollar moonshots would have the benefit of being informed by the truth.—James Schaffer