Could She Be Hillary's Secretary of Space?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because investing in the future of space is for the future of humanity.
By Farah Halime
When Andy Weir, author of The Martian, was seeking inspiration for his sequel, he found it at a tiny startup that had proven it could launch spacecraft into the cosmos using microwaves to “beam” power to them from Earth. The radical system had been devised at Escape Dynamics, the company that successfully tested the technology last year and was cofounded by 38-year-old French-American entrepreneur Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux.
The same month the company announced its startling results, NASA added “beamed rocketry” to its road map for future technology development. “We’re one giant step forward but only in the early innings of what we’ll see in terms of beamed energy propulsion,” Garriott de Cayeux says from her office. “Everything is possible,” Weir tells OZY. He consulted with Garriott de Cayeux for his new novel set on the moon. But space exploration has leapt off the pages of sci-fi fiction and is poised to become big business. And yet, despite the accolades and global attention, Escape Dynamics shut down in December, citing the technical risks and uncertainty about the cost for private investors. To launch any payload from Earth to low Earth orbit can cost as much as $50,000 per kilogram, an amount that can paralyze the most established outfits, let alone a small startup. “I hope … that they are in secret working on a comeback,” says Arno Wielders, cofounder of Mars One, whose mission is to create the first human settlement on the red planet by 2027.
Turns out Garriott de Cayeux has the ear of some powerful people. She has been working on space policy as part of Hillary Clinton ’s domestic-policy working group focused on science, along with serving on the Europe- and Russia-policy working group. “It’s pretty enthralling,” she says, sitting near photographs of her family posed with Clinton, who recently declared she believed in science! at the Democratic National Convention. (That family includes a wealthy gaming tycoon husband who became the sixth private astronaut to go to space and has invested heavily in private space as well.) Garriott de Cayeux’s volunteer work has not gone unnoticed.
Commercialization of space is inevitable, but NASA’s a stepping stone to getting there.
—Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux
Last month, she delivered a patriotic briefing at the DNC, saying “opportunity is the reason why I came to America 14 years ago. That, and the belief anyone can rise. That’s what I believed in my mid-20s and that’s what I know … needs to be our priority today.” The green-eyed former financier is also part of the National Finance Committee for Hillary for America and cofounder of Entrepreneurs for Hillary, where she has raised donations across 23 states for Clinton’s presidential campaign so far. (Representatives from Clinton’s team did not respond to requests for comment.) And Garriott de Cayeux espouses a government-friendly vision of space and science: Commercialization of space is inevitable, but NASA’s a stepping stone to getting there, she says.
Garriott de Cayeux has come a long way from her small hometown in France’s Loire Valley. Her mother passed away when she was 7, she says, pausing to compose herself. “Too much got in the way for her,” she says about a woman who died before she could pursue her interests. Garriott de Cayeux’s grandfather, André de Cayeux de Sénarpont, planted the seeds for what would become the field of planetary geology as early as 1948 and lived to accomplish “big and bold things,” she says. Growing up with that family legacy made her a kind of sci-tech heiress; the holder of two MBAs (Harvard and France’s ESSEC) split her childhood between France and Hong Kong, where her father was employed by French energy giant Total, before she moved to Hong Kong to work in equity capital markets for BNP Paribas. Following stints at Goldman Sachs and Renaissance Technologies, she founded Ajna Capital in 2008. While financial markets imploded, her company’s equity fund made a 13.76 percent return in 2009 — and she made influential friends, including Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, whom she met through business magnate George Soros. Allen served as more than a professional contact: In 2008, he introduced her to Richard, who also took her name when he married her.
Their marriage three years later precipitated a sea change: Democratizing space access became her new obsession, following on her previous endeavors to equalize access to pioneering technologies — like the business plan she wrote over 10 years ago for Extend Fertility, a company that allowed women to freeze their eggs, long before it became an everyday practice. Today the couple — the only private owners of an object on a foreign celestial body — are among the largest shareholders of Space Adventures, offering zero-gravity atmospheric flights and orbital spaceflights to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station.
But space, and its colonization, remain more fantastical than attainable to most, and Garriott de Cayeux is determined to alter public perception. “Space exploration has wide support, but it’s not very deep because most people see it as in competition with something else,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space lawyer and a director at the International Institute of Space Law. And the topic hasn’t gotten much play in the presidential debates or election activity, with the exception of billionaire Peter Thiel’s call to Republicans to get us to Mars and ditch the culture wars.
And before endorsing science at the DNC, Clinton insisted at a New Hampshire Town Hall last year, “I really, really do support the space program.” But for those with their eyes trained on the cosmos, space is no footnote at the edge of a spending bill. “The space program,” maintains Garriott de Cayeux, “is nothing less than the longtime assurance of the sustainability of the human race.”
This article’s description of Garriott de Cayeux’s work with the Clinton campaign has been corrected, as has its description of her mother’s interests.