When Richard Branson blew past a group of novice kite surfers training on the pristine beaches of his private Necker Island earlier this summer, dropped his surfboard in the surrounding Atlantic Ocean, and effortlessly slid across the turquoise-blue surface, he was training to be an astronaut. Later that day, when the billionaire founder of Virgin Group joined Salesforce’s head of blockchain, the co-founder of blockchain technology giant Bitfury, and a Necker Island tennis pro in a doubles match surrounded by palm trees, pink flamingos and ringtail lemurs, he was once again working his way to the stars.
For the past seven years, many of 69-year-old Branson’s habits have been dedicated to this purpose, from his choice of recreation to the multiple times he’s strapped into the NASTAR STS-400 centrifuge outside of Philadelphia, where he experienced the crushing forces of gravity six-times higher than Earth. While Branson’s real goal is to be a passenger on his own Virgin Galactic spaceship, called VSS Unity, all that stands between him and outer space is Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor and de facto space gatekeeper.
“When am I going?” Branson asked a crowd of about 30 people at a film screening of private footage from Moses’ first flight to space hosted at the Blockchain Summit on Necker Island. “When Beth tells me I’m allowed to.”
Moses’ presence at the annual summit, co-hosted by Bitfury, to explore how the technology that powers bitcoin can be used to change a wide range of businesses, was no publicity stunt. An early adopter of bitcoin, Moses read the bitcoin white paper in 2013 and was struck by the cryptocurrency’s ability to let anyone in the world spend and receive money without a bank. Shortly thereafter she started mining bitcoin.
The former NASA engineer, who made a name for herself choreographing a global team of astronauts on the International Space Station, became a founding member of the nonprofit Bitcoin Foundation’s short-lived Financial Standards Working Group and was a strong advocate of bitcoin at Virgin Galactic when in 2013 the space travel startup became one of the first companies to accept the cryptocurrency as payment. With hundreds of tickets to space already sold and millions of dollars in deposits on hand, Virgin Galactic needed someone to train the next generation of astronauts.
Moses finally got her chance to go to space earlier this year when she became the first woman commercial astronaut, earning the Federal Aviation Agency’s commercial space transportation wings, numbered 007. Reaching speeds exceeding three times the speed of sound, Moses was catapulted through a sky she remembers not as black or blue but purple. At a peak altitude of 295,007 feet—the apogee of the flight—she says she was struck by the absence of visible borders.
Now back on Earth (for the time being), Moses says the perspective changed her. The biggest problems our little planet is trying to solve require more money than any single person, company or government can afford, she says, and planning over a timescale longer than any investor report, election cycle or lifetime. According to Moses, a new breed of massive scale projects, ranging from harnessing nuclear fission to exploring solar systems beyond our own, or powering a truly borderless economy, require a new kind of technology she calls “global tools” that allow humans to coordinate regardless of what nation they call home, for the benefit and survival of all.
“Humanity has reached a point where important projects have to be global in order to survive political cycles and in order to be able to be funded,” says Moses, her newly awarded FAA flight wings proudly pinned to her pink paisley bathing suit. “We’ve reached the point where countries have to cooperate to fund big things. Because no one country can bear the burden alone.”
As Moses stares out over the turquoise ocean surrounding Necker Island she tells the history of this new breed of technology. The earliest example she describes emerged in the mid-1800s, with the seemingly humble invention of postage stamps, which allowed users in almost any country to pay once in their native currency and trust that middlemen in other nations would transmit a package to its destination. Then in 1884 a global body of governments gathered in Washington, D.C., to adopt time zones and Cartesian coordinates pegged to a globally agreed-upon prime meridian. Whereas trains at the beginning of the century had to account for different measurements in each city they visited, the adoption of universally accepted time zones and longitude and latitude coordinates meant businesses could more seamlessly interact across borders.
“Until the international conference on the prime meridian the world hadn’t agreed on one meridian to start the clock with,” says Moses. “We all had to get together to agree on the prime meridian.”
Since then, the world has seen an explosion of similar tools that enable borderless commerce and are more resilient to global uncertainty than any single entity could ensure. The internet has grown from a few government-backed U.S. universities in the 1960s to the backbone of global commerce and information sharing managed by a patchwork of businesses, non-profit organizations and tech developers scattered around the world. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a 35-year commitment between China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States to commercialize fusion energy. The International Space Station (ISS) launched in 1998 to house scientists and other explorers as they probe ever deeper into uncharted territory. Moses was there when the idea for the space station was still on the drawing board.
Born Natalie Beth Stubbings, Moses, grew up in Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. A self-described “book-worm, tom boy and tinker,” she caught the space bug early in life, going on to receive her bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics engineering from astronaut Neil Armstrong’s alma mater, Purdue University, in 1992. Two years later the university granted her a master’s degree in the same field. While there she started dating fellow Purdue aeronautics student Mike Moses, and shortly after graduating they got married and both got a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. By the end of her time at NASA, almost 20 years later, she was manager of the extravehicular activity system for the International Space Station. That’s a fancy way of saying she helped design and build the technology astronauts used to walk in space.
“My team and I had to test the really crucial components underwater in neutral buoyancy or in vacuum chambers or in glove boxes or in all these different test environments to make sure that when the space walkers got to space and had part A in their right hand and part B in their left hand, they could pull them together and fasten them together without any issue,” she says.
While working on these projects with an international, multi-corporate team including competitors Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Rocketdyne, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Alenia, she further refined her idea of how global tools can help disparate parties coordinate across borders, and above them.
“Italian hardware was going to literally bump into the Japanese hardware, which was literally going to stick into the hull of the American hardware, and in order to put it all together you had to use the Canadian robotic arm,” says Moses. “Many countries that have been at war with each other cooperated to build something for the good of all.”
Then, in 2011, the growing costs of taking trips to space resulted in the United States government shuttering its shuttle program. A plethora of private competitors raced to fill the void and drive down prices, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which won a U.S. Airforce contract last year to develop a new launch system, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is preparing to deliver its first astronauts to the International Space Station in the next year and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s commercial space travel company, Virgin Galactic, which has taken an early lead bringing citizens to space. “International cooperation in large government programs will continue to be the norm,” says Moses. “There are, however, areas where competition amongst companies will drive innovation and drive prices down.”
As the shuttle program wound down, Moses came across a job posting for vice-president of operations at Virgin Galactic and forwarded it to her husband, Mike Moses, by that time a Space Shuttle launch manager. Mike got the job, and two years later, in 2013, Moses herself left NASA to join Branson’s space startup.
That same year she discovered bitcoin. After reading an article about the difficulties of using the cryptocurrency to pay for everyday goods, Moses became captivated by the technology’s ability to enable commerce across borders without the need of middlemen. What the prime meridian did to the way time and space are organized, the bitcoin blockchain’s first block, called the genesis block, promised to do to money. “I saw the original bitcoin blockchain as evidence of a global tool that could give a point of reference for data keeping and a transfer of value. It is the same ledger referenced to the same genesis block no matter where you are, and that struck me as a global tool. Just like every GPS system uses the same latitude and longitude, zero.”
Weeks later Moses bought a computer designed to audit the bitcoin blockchain, and through a process called mining received what she describes as “tiny, tiny, tiny” amounts of bitcoin in exchange for the computing power she contributed to the network. After her energy bill (and the heat in her home) got too high to make mining worthwhile she closed down the effort. But she had caught the blockchain bug, and after joining as chair of a short-lived effort organized by the Bitcoin Foundation to standardize the symbol for bitcoin and the names of the denominations of the cryptocurrency, she became a founding participant in the exclusive Blockchain Summit, along with Branson, early Twitter investor and event co-host Bill Tai, and economist Hernando de Soto, who is exploring how blockchain can help track property rights in developing nations. That was five years ago, and she’s been to all but one of the events.
To be fair, Moses’ vision of tools that unite businesses and nations across borders is nuanced, to say the least. While more than 200 people from 18 countries have visited the International Space Station, the United States and Russia largely control the actual hardware, and a new space station from China, scheduled to open next year, is the result of a U.S. ban on working with the nation in space. In the world of blockchain, mining processes similar to what Moses did have moved from low-powered personal computers to specialized hardware run largely in places like China, where electricity costs are subsidized by the government. While the Chinese government has clamped down on bitcoin, it is one of a number of nations developing secretive blockchain hybrids that will likely allow them to control certain aspects of the shared, distributed ledger, like simplified money creation, while capitalizing on other aspects such as less reliance on middlemen to move money and easier tracking of its citizens’ spending.
“Like any tool or any currency,” says Moses. “Blockchain can be used for good or evil. If you have an Excel spreadsheet, you can put happy things in there, you can put evil things in there.”
So far, Virgin Galactic has booked 600 reservations from 60 countries to fly on Unity, with deposits totalling $80 million, not counting an additional 2,500 inquiries, according to SEC documents filed last month as part of a planned merger with Social Capital Hedosophia, an investment company founded by early Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya, that would raise an additional $800 million and value the company at $1.5 billion, if approved. Four of those tickets, including one each for bitcoin entrepreneurs Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, were paid for in bitcoin.
While Moses’ first flight to space was the second flight to generate revenue for Virgin Galactic (carrying experiments for NASA, Controlled Dynamics, the University of Central Florida, and Johns Hopkins University), the investor documents show that the company plans to rapidly increase that income. By 2020 an estimated 66 passengers are expected to generate about $31 million revenue. By mid-2021 the company predicts it will have taken more astronauts to space than have ever existed (Moses was astronaut 571), and in 2023 an additional 1,565 passengers are expected to enter space in a Virgin Galactic space ship, generating $590 million in revenue. In total, the Virgin Group last year generated $21 billion revenue.
The impact of so many people seeing Earth from space cannot be overstated, according to Moses. In fact, it’s a huge part of the reason why Branson, Moses and many on the Virgin Galactic team got into the business. “I am very proud to be from Chicago,” says Moses. “I am very proud to be an American. But first and foremost, I’m a citizen of Earth. Now that I’ve seen it in space, I feel even more so.”
The perspective shift this kind of experience can have on people was predicted in 2016 by recently deceased astrophysicist and former Virgin Galactic ticket holder Stephen Hawking. During a speech commemorating the unveiling of the Unity spacecraft he said that space exploration has already been a great unifier. “We seem able to cooperate between nations in space in a way we can only envy on earth,” he said. “Taking more and more passengers out into space will enable them and us to look both outwards and back, but with a fresh perspective in both directions. It will help bring new meaning to our place on Earth, and to our responsibilities as its stewards. It will help us to recognize our place and our future in the cosmos, which is where I believe our ultimate destiny lies.”
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the concept of global tools should emerge from within Virgin Galactic. Branson himself has invested in a number of high-profile blockchain startups, including bitcoin payments firm BitPay that transacted $1 billion in payments last year and Blockchain, LLC, one of the largest providers of cryptocurrency wallets. Virgin Galactic itself is a sort of global tool. While all of its space flights currently take off from where they land, at Spaceport America, in the Chihuahuan desert north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the eventual goal is to connect the world through space. Taking off in New Mexico, for example, and landing in Sydney just a few hours later. Investor documents show the company has already signed agreements in Italy and the United Arab Emirates for a spaceport and space agency partnership, respectively.
In the spirit of camaraderie these global tools inspire, Branson earlier this year called for a new vote on Brexit, which would see the United Kingdom leave the European Union. “Europe was set up to create a borderless society where people could love, marry, party, dance together,” Branson told Forbes at last year’s Blockchain Summit. “And it would be too sad to see it go back the other way.”