Meet The Iranian-Born Billionaire Helping NASA Get Back To The Moon

Kam Ghaffarian isn’t a family title. However not like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who made fortunes elsewhere first, Ghaffarian truly received wealthy by capturing for the celebs. His long-term plan? The primary for-profit house station, opening by 2031.

By Giacomo Tognini, Forbes Employees


Less than 24 hours earlier than jetting off to the Center East and South Korea to fulfill buyers, Kamal Ghaffarian has discovered a few hours in his schedule. Taking off his jacket, he settles right into a chair in his workplace, a nondescript, four-story constructing in suburban Maryland. He asks: “Did you hear individuals name me ‘loopy Kam’?”



It’s a good query. The record of corporations Ghaffarian has based reads just like the pages of a science fiction novel: Axiom House is constructing the world’s first business house station in partnership with NASA and in addition designed the following technology of astronaut spacesuits. (“The subsequent time you see astronauts strolling on the floor of the moon, they are going to be carrying Axiom House spacesuits,” he provides.) Intuitive Machines builds lunar landers and can ship one to the moon’s south pole in January (climate allowing), one among a number of launches it’s planning that may open the moon as much as business missions. Quantum House is creating an area “superhighway” that may assist spacecraft refuel and journey within the area between the Earth and the moon. And again down on this planet, X-Vitality is making small, superior (and meltdown-proof) nuclear reactors that may energy all the things from a distant navy base to Dow’s 4,700-acre chemical compounds plant on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Loopy, certainly. However all the companies have a standard aim, in line with Ghaffarian. “We must be a multi-planetary species and in addition be capable to go to different stars. However till then, we solely have one residence, proper?” he says, including, with a chuckle: “Should you kind of summarize all the things, [we need to] care for our present residence and discover a new residence.”

The house trade is dominated by larger-than-life moguls who’ve poured cash into rockets, rovers and rides into orbit. However, not like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, Ghaffarian, 65, is a uncommon instance of somebody who’s a billionaire largely as a result of of his house pursuits, somewhat than one who received into it after making his fortune. The important thing to that success? Tradition, tradition, tradition, he says. However in a $546 billion enterprise that’s nonetheless pushed by the U.S. authorities, in line with the nonprofit House Basis, it’s truly contracts, contracts, contracts.

“Nobody is best than Kam Ghaffarian at successful, on a aggressive foundation, {dollars} from the U.S. authorities,” provides J. Clay Promote, the CEO of X-Vitality and a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Division of Vitality.

Uncle Sam isn’t the one sport on the town, in fact. Ghaffarian already has a laundry record of economic shoppers, together with the Cedars-Sinai well being system (for stem cell analysis in microgravity), champagne producer G.H. Mumm (bubbly designed to be tasted in house) and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, which additionally has a three way partnership with Axiom. Then there’s overseas governments, corresponding to Canada and Saudi Arabia, plus entrepreneurs who can pay to entry house: Axiom already accomplished two profitable, all-private crewed missions to the Worldwide House Station (ISS) with Musk’s SpaceX in April 2022 and final Might, with the primary that includes three business astronauts and the second internet hosting two Saudi astronauts. As of August, the corporate claimed to have secured greater than $2.2 billion in buyer contracts.

That monitor document has helped him win over buyers. In August, Axiom House raised a further $350 million in a funding spherical led by Saudi Arabia’s Aljazira Capital and South Korean pharma outfit Boryung; the agency is valued at $2.1 billion, in line with filings from one other Axiom backer, ARK Make investments. That very same month, Intuitive Machines—which listed on Nasdaq by means of a clean test agency in February—closed on a $20 million non-public funding, shoring up its funds after a rocky debut as a public firm. X-Vitality, which counts Dow and personal fairness outfit Ares Administration as buyers, was valued at roughly $1.1 billion in September. The latest, and smallest, a part of his fortune is Quantum House, which raised $15 million in December. Altogether, Forbes estimates Ghaffarian is value $2.2 billion, thanks largely to his stakes in his house and nuclear startups. Not dangerous for an Iranian immigrant who landed in Washington, D.C. in 1976 with a $2,000 mortgage from his uncle to attend faculty.

“Folks consider Bezos, Musk, Branson and rightly so,” explains Chris Stott, the founder and CEO of Lonestar Knowledge Holdings, which is partnering with Intuitive Machines to retailer information on the lunar floor. “They need to additionally tack Kam Ghaffarian onto that record as a result of he is doing as a lot, and he is been fairly sensible as a result of he is leveraging all the things Jeff and Elon are doing.”

Ghaffarian could also be an asteroid in a giant galaxy in comparison with the likes of Musk and Bezos, who’re deploying billions of {dollars}. However he sees these magnates not as competitors a lot as companions: “I’ve a substantial amount of respect for Elon and [SpaceX president] Gwynne Shotwell, they’re superior pals. Jeff Bezos, the identical,” he says.

Like these different better-known house entrepreneurs, Ghaffarian has a lot bolder plans. The speedy aim of constructing the primary ever business house station and the lunar landers is to decrease the prices of entry into house, a lot in the identical manner that SpaceX’s reusable rockets made it cheaper, simpler and sooner to launch missions. Consider a Tom Cruise flick shot on an precise house station or drug growth in zero gravity—each of which Ghaffarian’s corporations are serving to flip into actuality.

However that’s simply the beginning. Long run, he says: “Our final future is for the human race to turn into interstellar.”

Step one is low Earth orbit, which means the house station. Then the moon, with landers and a human outpost. After which? “Applied sciences that may transcend our photo voltaic system.”


Ghaffarian’s out-of-this-world desires date again to his childhood within the historic metropolis of Isfahan, Iran, the place he cherished to gaze on the stars. On the night time of July 20, 1969, the then-11-year-old huddled across the black-and-white TV in his neighbor’s residence and watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin turned the primary human beings to stroll on the moon. “It was actually a transformational second,” he recollects. “That actually triggered for me that that is what I wished to do.”

The final American mission to the moon was in 1972. 4 years later, Ghaffarian flew to Washington D.C. to check on the Catholic College of America with a $2,000 mortgage from his uncle. At night time, he would park automobiles in downtown D.C. to repay that debt whereas ending a double diploma in laptop science and engineering. Ghaffarian graduated in 1980—one 12 months after the Iranian revolution—and by no means regarded again.

His first job out of faculty was at Virginia-based IT agency Compucare, all whereas persevering with his research with a level in electronics engineering and a grasp’s in data administration. Ghaffarian’s first foray within the house trade got here in 1983 when he received a gig at aerospace big Lockheed, later shifting onto Ford Aerospace, the place he continued to work on contracts for NASA and the federal authorities. Then, in 1994, he struck out on his personal with Harold Stinger, whom he’d met at Lockheed. The pair based an organization known as Stinger Ghaffarian Applied sciences with the assistance of a federal program that helps minority-owned companies. Their first workplace was in Ghaffarian’s basement.

“We determined to open our personal firm doing the identical factor, principally the federal government contracting enterprise,” he says. “I mortgaged a home and received $250,000 that I put collectively, and that’s how we received began.”

By 2006, SGT had turn into the twentieth largest contractor for NASA with $100 million in contracts to offer engineering providers and mission help. Three years later, he purchased out Stinger’s stake. “He has a ability set for presidency contracting,” says Chris Quilty, the founder and co-CEO of house market analysis agency Quilty House. “And since that is intrinsically a authorities market, that may be a crucial ability set to have.”

One other ability: his potential to coax NASA veterans to hitch him within the non-public sector. Ghaffarian’s corporations are stacked with at the very least 18 ex-NASA rockstars, bringing a wealth of presidency expertise but in addition convincing buyers that they will reach an more and more crowded market. In 2013, he teamed up with Stephen Altemus—the previous deputy director of NASA’s Johnson House Heart in Houston, which led the Apollo landings on the moon—to launch Intuitive Machines. Three years later, he satisfied Michael Suffredini, who managed NASA’s Worldwide House Station program for a decade, to hitch him in founding Axiom House.

“I known as him and stated, ‘Kam, the one factor I understand how to do is construct and function an area station,’” Suffredini says of a telephone name he had with Ghaffarian quickly after leaving NASA. “He stated, ‘okay, let me take into consideration that.’ He known as again the following day and stated, ‘let’s go construct an area station.’”

“It is crucial element and it clearly is a aggressive benefit,” says Kurt Scherer, managing companion at Washington, D.C.-based funding agency C5 Capital, which invested in each Axiom House and his nuclear reactor agency X-Vitality, which Ghaffarian based in 2009.

Ghaffarian’s monitor document of successful contracts from NASA—he claims that SGT had a win ratio of 80%, in comparison with an trade common under 50%—helped Axiom and Intuitive clinch main bids, from the spacesuits to the business lunar program. “This potential to bid on contracts and succeed is our secret sauce,” he provides. Even X-Vitality is energetic in house: Final 12 months, a three way partnership along with his Intuitive Machines received a $5 million contract from NASA and the Division of Vitality to design a conveyable nuclear reactor for the lunar floor.

All of those initiatives require funding. That’s why Ghaffarian bought SGT in 2018 to publicly traded KBR for $355 million, giving him the money to push his different ventures ahead. “There are occasions that I feel possibly I should not have bought, as a result of SGT was an unbelievable money movement enterprise. However these are expertise corporations,” he says, pointing to Axiom, Intuitive and X-Vitality. “You have to pour some huge cash into them.”

Seed funding solely goes up to now in house, and Ghaffarian managed to sway deep-pocketed buyers to commit the funds wanted to get these companies off the bottom. “Kam is likely one of the only a few individuals who has the flexibility to see a giant, daring, formidable future and is ready to get lots of people to consider in that imaginative and prescient,” says Dakin Sloss, the founder and common companion of Jackson, Wyoming-based VC agency Prime Movers Lab, which has invested in each Axiom and Quantum House.

Public markets haven’t been as type as non-public backers. X-Vitality terminated its SPAC merger with Ares Acquisition Corp. in October, a month after revising its valuation downwards by 42%. Intuitive Machines’ inventory has fallen 70% since its inventory market debut, as buyers priced in delays to the agency’s first lunar launch. Initially scheduled for November—which might have made Ghaffarian the primary to convey America again to the moon since 1972—it was pushed again to January attributable to “pad congestion” at Cape Canaveral. (One other U.S. firm, Astrobotic, has its personal lander that’s anticipated to launch on Christmas Eve, probably beating Ghaffarian to the punch.)

And the competitors is fierce throughout the board: Within the nuclear trade, Invoice Gates’ TerraPower, which is making a pilot reactor bigger than X-Vitality’s, additionally received a Division of Vitality contract similtaneously Ghaffarian’s agency in 2020. Within the realm of house stations, Axiom can even need to take care of Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra House—based by billionaire couple Eren and Fatih Ozmen—plus trade titans Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, that are partnering with Denver-based Voyager House, and different startups together with crypto billionaire Jed McCaleb’s Huge. And apart from Astrobotic and Blue Origin, Japanese startup iSpace is planning a second mission to the moon in 2024 after its first lander crashed into the lunar floor final April attributable to a software program glitch.

Ghaffarian is not fearful, envisioning a future the place there’s greater than sufficient enterprise to go round for a number of small nuclear reactors, house stations and companies ferrying payloads to the moon. “Competitors is wholesome. It makes you extra inventive and modern,” he says. His buyers agree: “We wish to encourage opponents as a result of that is going to be a rising market,” provides C5 Capital’s Scherer.

Probably the most formidable Ghaffarian undertaking is the Limitless House Institute, a nonprofit that he says he got here up with when he was at residence meditating and fascinated about the universe. (“What drives me is my spirituality and trusting God,” he says.) Primarily based in Houston, the institute—additionally led by NASA veterans—companions with colleges and universities and funds analysis into applied sciences that might in the future allow interstellar journey, starting from fusion-powered spacecraft (theoretically attainable, however removed from being a actuality) to “house drives, wormholes and house warps” (nonetheless fully conceptual).

Ghaffarian possible received’t be round if any of these occur. However he does envision a near-term future the place people dwell full-time on an area station and the moon. The subsequent step in that imaginative and prescient is the Intuitive Machines launch to the moon in January. Then comes Axiom House’s subsequent astronaut mission, additionally scheduled for early subsequent 12 months. The primary part of the brand new house station is anticipated to connect to the ISS in 2026—Axiom is the one firm that may join its modules there—with the entire construction up and operating by 2031, when the ISS will likely be retired.

“While you discuss 10, 15, 20 years from now, my hope is that now we have an area metropolis, a spot the place individuals can truly go and dwell,” he says. “That will be a very nice constructing block towards additional house exploration for human beings.”

To Ghaffarian, the motivation for constructing an area station and lunar landers was by no means simply to get wealthy—though his investments in them have helped make him very rich.

“I did not wish to be the richest man within the cemetery and I did not need my life to be nearly making extra money,” he says, reflecting on when he bought his first enterprise. “I wished my life to be extra about making a distinction, altering the world for the higher.”

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