Esther Dyson always figured she would ride a rocket one day. As the daughter of renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, she says, “I took it for granted. I just assumed it was like airplanes—my parents would fly on airplanes, and when I grew up I would fly on them, too.” About 10 years ago, she realized no spaceflight was imminent, “and thought, This is something that needs a little help.”
This is a woman who likes a challenge: A former journalist and tech-conference host, Dyson was the founding chair of ICANN, the nonprofit board that coordinated the taxonomy of the early commercial Internet—domain names and IP addresses and such. She has since become a bellwether investor in emerging technologies, particularly in Eastern Europe, and she currently sits on 10 boards, including those of Meetup, 23andMe (a personal genome sequencer), and Yandex, the Russian search engine. “Basically I do stuff that needs disruption and that seems to be ready for it,” she says.
After hearing an inspiring talk by entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, Africa’s first space tourist, Dyson signed up for her own zero-gravity flight . . . and then plunked down $3 million for full cosmonaut training: six months in Star City, outside Moscow, plus wilderness training in Kazakhstan. “I got what I paid for,” she says happily. “It was better than an MBA. It just was really cool.
“What you learn is two things: It’s a whole lot about the human body and medicine and stuff specific to space, and then space plumbing—you go up there planning to be a big fixer-upper in the sky. You have to know how the mechanical systems work.” She learned that she has a strong stomach, able to withstand centrifugal “provocation” from a “weightlessness trainer” named Boris. “They twirl you around as fast they can to see if they can make you get sick. And I didn’t, but I got close.”
While Dyson didn’t get to blast off—she was a backup for software engineer Charles Simonyi, who did fly—she says, “I’m better informed when I look at space investments (hers include Space Adventures, XCOR Aerospace, and Nanoracks). XCOR, based in the Mohave Desert, hopes to offer several suborbital flights per day, and plans to sell its no-frills, extreme-sports-style experience for $95,000—as opposed to the more luxurious living-room feel of Virgin Galactic (which will charge $200,000). When will flights begin? “Soon,” says Dyson. “A few years. I’m not going to guess.”
For those who want to read about the latest developments, Dyson suggests, “Go to Commercial Spaceflight Federation and follow those links.” According to her, most journalists “cover space as if NASA were the only way to get into space—a lot of ‘Oh, the end of the space program.’ It was same with the Internet—when the Internet went commercial, everyone said it was the end, but in fact, it was the beginning. When you unleash commercial energy, suddenly things start to happen. Some people see logos on spacecraft and say, ‘How horrible!’ I say, ‘How exciting!’ It will bring in competition, energy, ingenuity, and a certain amount of risk tolerance.”
Looking back on her cosmonaut training, Dyson says, “It changes your life, it changes what you think, and it changes what you dream about.” Asked to elaborate, she adds, “I have lots of dreams about being weightless. But it also changes what you dream while you’re awake.”Cyndi Stivers is a former editor in chief of CJR