Esther Dyson bets $3 million on the moon

Bambi Francisco Roizen · October 5, 2008 · Short URL:

Tech luminary puts the 'space' in cyberspace

On October 20, Airship Ventures' zeppelin will arrive in Moffett Field. It's exciting news for everyone in the Bay Area, including Esther Dyson, an investor in Airship Ventures. Yet gliding in an airship is hardly an adventure when compared to rocketing into the stars and putting one foot on the moon. For $3 million, Esther is crossing her fingers that the ride of her life isn't the one that sails through the sky like a floating hotel. 

"I'm going to be training to be a backup for a commercial space astronaut," said Esther, who coincidentally  faxed her space-training paperwork while at my office for this interview. For the several-million-dollar lottery ticket, Esther goes to space-training camp in Moscow next year, and has an option to launch into the solar system with two Russian astronauts. "It sounds frivolous," she said. "But it's an education."  

I call it the mother of all standby tickets. But think of the frequent flier miles she'll rack up if she gets it!

If your father designed a rocket ship when you were seven, you would have probably spent a good deal of your life thinking about new frontiers, just like Esther, whose father helped develop a nuclear-powered rocket in her youth. Today, at 57 years old, Esther is widely regarded as an Internet/high-tech luminary, thought leader, and respectable investor, having put money in some of the hottest startups, such as Flickr and (both part of Yahoo), and more recently 23andMe, which is backed by Google.

In the past couple years, Esther has been thinking a lot less about the Internet, and far more about different frontiers - space and health care, to be exact. Clearly, she's taking the space thing seriously. 

Was the Internet and high-tech sectors just getting boring? I asked.

"It's not that the Internet is boring," she responded. "But to some extent the intellectual risk is gone." 

Outer space is where the world's attention is going to turn, she predicted. "This is the next place we need to go, other than the oceans. We can go to Mars and figure out how to manipulate a climate and take that knowledge back to earth. We can do astroid mining for precious metals. We can do a lot of drug development in zero gravity.  Just like the Internet, or just like going to America, you go to uncharted territory, and it's amazing what new things you learn and new opportunities you discover."

One uncharted territory she's seeking to explore is genetics, with her involvement in 23andMe, a personal genomics company co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

23andMe, along with Navigenics, is one of the pioneer startups trying to make genetic information available to individuals so they can be empowered to make decisions about their health. 23andMe shares information about 60-plus conditions, including ancestry information, or whether you have the genes to be a world-class sprinter. A popular case that's recently arisen was that of Sergey having the gene variant that indicates a high risk of Parkinson's disease, a condition his mother had.

How's the accuracy of the science? I asked.

"The accuracy of the science is just fine," she said. "But we don't have enough data to make accurate predictions."

In another attempt to make the world a more transparent place, Esther invested in Ameritocracy, a fact-checking site that seeks to sniff out "lies" or statements diverging from fact, particularly in American politics. "When a politician says something stupid or obnoxious," she said. "Let’s fight back."

On its site today, a question is aksed about the accuracy of Sarah Palin's statement about Obama. The Governor of Alaska said: "This is someone who sees American as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.” Ameritocracy asks: Accurate or not?

Clearly, Esther's interests are as varied as the many Internet entrepreneurs who are also space cowboys. 

Like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, and game programmer John Carmack, Esther shares a passion for a world in which the private sector can change the dynamics of galaxy travel. Elon Musk spent $100 million to develop rockets (one of which was launched in late September), Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace are designing rockets for space tourism.

Who knows whether their capital will survive reentry, or if it's more of an interstellar fishing expedition designed to prod the mind and make a few contributions to science.

One thing seems certain, Esther is one of the few people for whom space travel seems like a logical step in the sequence of her life.


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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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Navigenics, Inc.


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Navigenics, Inc. is a privately held company based in Redwood Shores, Calif. The company was founded by David Agus, M.D. and Dietrich Stephan, Ph.D., with the goal of improving health outcomes in individuals across the population. Navigenics educates and empowers customers with knowledge of their genetic predispositions, and then motivates them to act on the information to prevent the onset of disease, achieve earlier diagnosis, appropriately manage disease, or otherwise lessen its impact. Navigenics' lead investors are Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Sequoia Capital and MDV-Mohr Davidow Ventures. More information is at



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23andMe is a web-based service that helps you read and understand your DNA. After providing a saliva sample using an at-home kit, you can use our interactive tools to shed new light on your distant ancestors, your close family and most of all, yourself.