Kam Ghaffarian’s Moonshots

Much of the American space program is run out of nondescript offices in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. That’s where Kam Ghaffarian, the billionaire space entrepreneur, could be found on an auspicious day. Exactly 47 years before, he had immigrated to the United States from Iran. Mr. Ghaffarian, 66, sat at a table made of gently glowing white onyx, also from Iran.

Mr. Ghaffarian said he imported the stone because of its unique translucence when lit and because of the energy (spiritual, not physical) that the billion-year-old mineral emits. He is a big believer in the importance of meditating to connect with the energy in the universe, which he has done on a daily basis for decades.

“When you touch it, you feel the energy of the stone,” he said. “How many years? Go ahead, touch it.”

He was in the market for good energy. Just a few weeks later, Mr. Ghaffarian’s company tried to do something no private organization has ever done: Touch down softly on the surface of the moon.

Mr. Ghaffarian specializes in moonshots. His array of companies includes not just the one sending a lander to the moon, but also one building a space station to put in orbit around the Earth, another designing advanced nuclear reactors, a venture fund and a nonprofit studying faster-than-light travel technology. His projects are the kind that Silicon Valley frets about having given up on. They are bets on tangible technology, not software, where metrics like hits and clicks are replaced with the hard questions of physics.

And while bombastic billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have captured attention for their efforts to launch futuristic reusable rockets, the lower-profile Mr. Ghaffarian’s companies have helped answer the question of what to do with them, becoming crucial in the increasingly close partnership between NASA and private industry. SpaceX’s key innovation has been building rockets that have brought down the cost of going to space. Mr. Ghaffarian’s firms are using those cheap rockets to commercialize space activity in ways that Mr. Musk’s SpaceX hasn’t pursued, while Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to reach orbit.

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