Kam Ghaffarian isn’t a household name. But unlike Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who made fortunes elsewhere first, Ghaffarian actually got rich by shooting for the stars. His long-term plan? The first for-profit space station, opening by 2031.
By Giacomo Tognini, Forbes Staff
Less than 24 hours before jetting off to the Middle East and South Korea to meet investors, Kamal Ghaffarian has found a couple of hours in his schedule. Taking off his jacket, he settles into a chair in his office, a nondescript, four-story building in suburban Maryland. He asks: “Did you hear people call me ‘crazy Kam’?”
It’s a fair question. The list of companies Ghaffarian has founded reads like the pages of a science fiction novel: Axiom Space is building the world’s first commercial space station in partnership with NASA and also designed the next generation of astronaut spacesuits. (“The next time you see astronauts walking on the surface of the moon, they will be wearing Axiom Space spacesuits,” he adds.) Intuitive Machines builds lunar landers and will send one to the moon’s south pole in January (weather permitting), one of several launches it is planning that will open the moon up to commercial missions. Quantum Space is creating a space “superhighway” that will help spacecraft refuel and travel in the region between the Earth and the moon. And back down on this planet, X-Energy is making small, advanced (and meltdown-proof) nuclear reactors that can power everything from a remote military base to Dow’s 4,700-acre chemicals plant on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Crazy, indeed. But all the businesses have a common goal, according to Ghaffarian. “We need to be a multi-planetary species and also be able to go to other stars. But until then, we only have one home, right?” he says, adding, with a chuckle: “If you sort of summarize everything, [we need to] take care of our existing home and find a new home.”
The space industry is dominated by larger-than-life moguls who have poured money into rockets, rovers and rides into orbit. But, unlike Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, Ghaffarian, 65, is a rare example of someone who is a billionaire largely because of his space pursuits, rather than one who got into it after making his fortune. The key to that success? Culture, culture, culture, he says. But in a $546 billion business that’s still driven by the U.S. government, according to the nonprofit Space Foundation, it’s actually contracts, contracts, contracts.
“No one is better than Kam Ghaffarian at winning, on a competitive basis, dollars from the U.S. government,” adds J. Clay Sell, the CEO of X-Energy and a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Uncle Sam isn’t the only game in town, of course. Ghaffarian already has a laundry list of commercial clients, including the Cedars-Sinai health system (for stem cell research in microgravity), champagne producer G.H. Mumm (bubbly designed to be tasted in space) and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, which also has a joint venture with Axiom. Then there’s foreign governments, such as Canada and Saudi Arabia, plus entrepreneurs who will pay to access space: Axiom already completed two successful, all-private crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Musk’s SpaceX in April 2022 and last May, with the first featuring three commercial astronauts and the second hosting two Saudi astronauts. As of August, the company claimed to have secured more than $2.2 billion in customer contracts.
That track record has helped him win over investors. In August, Axiom Space raised an additional $350 million in a funding round led by Saudi Arabia’s Aljazira Capital and South Korean pharma outfit Boryung; the firm is valued at $2.1 billion, according to filings from another Axiom backer, ARK Invest. That same month, Intuitive Machines—which listed on Nasdaq through a blank check firm in February—closed on a $20 million private investment, shoring up its finances after a rocky debut as a public company. X-Energy, which counts Dow and private equity outfit Ares Management as investors, was valued at roughly $1.1 billion in September. The newest, and smallest, part of his fortune is Quantum Space, which raised $15 million in December. Altogether, Forbes estimates Ghaffarian is worth $2.2 billion, thanks mostly to his stakes in his space and nuclear startups. Not bad for an Iranian immigrant who landed in Washington, D.C. in 1976 with a $2,000 loan from his uncle to attend college.
“People think of Bezos, Musk, Branson and rightly so,” explains Chris Stott, the founder and CEO of Lonestar Data Holdings, which is partnering with Intuitive Machines to store data on the lunar surface. “They should also tack Kam Ghaffarian onto that list because he’s doing as much, and he’s been quite smart because he’s leveraging everything Jeff and Elon are doing.”
Ghaffarian may be an asteroid in a big galaxy compared to the likes of Musk and Bezos, who are deploying billions of dollars. But he sees those magnates not as competition so much as partners: “I have a great deal of respect for Elon and [SpaceX president] Gwynne Shotwell, they’re awesome friends. Jeff Bezos, the same,” he says.
Like these other better-known space entrepreneurs, Ghaffarian has much bolder plans. The immediate goal of building the first ever commercial space station and the lunar landers is to lower the costs of entry into space, much in the same way that SpaceX’s reusable rockets made it cheaper, easier and faster to launch missions. Think of a Tom Cruise flick shot on an actual space station or drug development in zero gravity—both of which Ghaffarian’s companies are helping turn into reality.
No one is better than Kam Ghaffarian at winning, on a competitive basis, dollars from the U.S. government.
But that’s just the start. Longer term, he says: “Our ultimate destiny is for the human race to become interstellar.”
The first step is low Earth orbit, meaning the space station. Then the moon, with landers and a human outpost. And then? “Technologies that can go beyond our solar system.”
Ghaffarian’s out-of-this-world dreams date back to his childhood in the ancient city of Isfahan, Iran, where he loved to gaze at the stars. On the night of July 20, 1969, the then-11-year-old huddled around the black-and-white TV in his neighbor’s home and watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. “It was really a transformational moment,” he recalls. “That really triggered for me that this is what I wanted to do.”
The last American mission to the moon was in 1972. Four years later, Ghaffarian flew to Washington D.C. to study at the Catholic University of America with a $2,000 loan from his uncle. At night, he would park cars in downtown D.C. to repay that debt while finishing a double degree in computer science and engineering. Ghaffarian graduated in 1980—one year after the Iranian revolution—and never looked back.
His first job out of college was at Virginia-based IT firm Compucare, all while continuing his studies with a degree in electronics engineering and a master’s in information management. Ghaffarian’s first foray in the space industry came in 1983 when he got a gig at aerospace giant Lockheed, later moving onto Ford Aerospace, where he continued to work on contracts for NASA and the federal government. Then, in 1994, he struck out on his own with Harold Stinger, whom he’d met at Lockheed. The pair founded a company called Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies with the help of a federal program that helps minority-owned businesses. Their first office was in Ghaffarian’s basement.
“We decided to open our own company doing the same thing, basically the government contracting business,” he says. “I mortgaged a house and got $250,000 that I put together, and that’s how we got started.”
By 2006, SGT had become the 20th largest contractor for NASA with $100 million in contracts to provide engineering services and mission support. Three years later, he bought out Stinger’s stake. “He has a skill set for government contracting,” says Chris Quilty, the founder and co-CEO of space market research firm Quilty Space. “And since this is intrinsically a government market, that is a very important skill set to have.”
Another skill: his ability to coax NASA veterans to join him in the private sector. Ghaffarian’s companies are stacked with at least 18 ex-NASA rockstars, bringing a wealth of government experience but also convincing investors that they can succeed in an increasingly crowded market. In 2013, he teamed up with Stephen Altemus—the former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which led the Apollo landings on the moon—to launch Intuitive Machines. Three years later, he convinced Michael Suffredini, who managed NASA’s International Space Station program for a decade, to join him in founding Axiom Space.
“I called him and said, ‘Kam, the only thing I know how to do is build and operate a space station,’” Suffredini says of a phone call he had with Ghaffarian soon after leaving NASA. “He said, ‘okay, let me think about that.’ He called back the next day and said, ‘let’s go build a space station.’”
“It’s the most important component and it clearly is a competitive advantage,” says Kurt Scherer, managing partner at Washington, D.C.-based investment firm C5 Capital, which invested in both Axiom Space and his nuclear reactor firm X-Energy, which Ghaffarian founded in 2009.
Ghaffarian’s track record of winning contracts from NASA—he claims that SGT had a win ratio of 80%, compared to an industry average below 50%—helped Axiom and Intuitive clinch major bids, from the spacesuits to the commercial lunar program. “This ability to bid on contracts and succeed is our secret sauce,” he adds. Even X-Energy is active in space: Last year, a joint venture with his Intuitive Machines won a $5 million contract from NASA and the Department of Energy to design a portable nuclear reactor for the lunar surface.
All of these projects require investment. That’s why Ghaffarian sold SGT in 2018 to publicly traded KBR for $355 million, giving him the cash to push his other ventures forward. “There are times that I think maybe I shouldn’t have sold, because SGT was an incredible cash flow business. But these are technology companies,” he says, pointing to Axiom, Intuitive and X-Energy. “You’ve got to pour a lot of money into them.”
Seed funding only goes so far in space, and Ghaffarian managed to sway deep-pocketed investors to commit the funds needed to get those businesses off the ground. “Kam is one of the very few people who has the ability to see a big, bold, ambitious future and is able to get a lot of people to believe in that vision,” says Dakin Sloss, the founder and general partner of Jackson, Wyoming-based VC firm Prime Movers Lab, which has invested in both Axiom and Quantum Space.
Public markets haven’t been as kind as private backers. X-Energy terminated its SPAC merger with Ares Acquisition Corp. in October, a month after revising its valuation downwards by 42%. Intuitive Machines’ stock has fallen 70% since its stock market debut, as investors priced in delays to the firm’s first lunar launch. Initially scheduled for November—which would have made Ghaffarian the first to bring America back to the moon since 1972—it was pushed back to January due to “pad congestion” at Cape Canaveral. (Another U.S. company, Astrobotic, has its own lander that’s expected to launch on Christmas Eve, potentially beating Ghaffarian to the punch.)
And the competition is fierce across the board: In the nuclear industry, Bill Gates’ TerraPower, which is making a pilot reactor larger than X-Energy’s, also won a Department of Energy contract at the same time as Ghaffarian’s firm in 2020. In the realm of space stations, Axiom will also have to contend with Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space—founded by billionaire couple Eren and Fatih Ozmen—plus industry titans Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which are partnering with Denver-based Voyager Space, and other startups including crypto billionaire Jed McCaleb’s Vast. And besides 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 surface last April due to a software glitch.
Ghaffarian isn’t worried, envisioning a future where there’s more than enough business to go around for multiple small nuclear reactors, space stations and firms ferrying payloads to the moon. “Competition is healthy. It makes you more creative and innovative,” he says. His investors agree: “We want to encourage competitors because this is going to be a growing market,” adds C5 Capital’s Scherer.
The most ambitious Ghaffarian project is the Limitless Space Institute, a nonprofit that he says he came up with when he was at home meditating and thinking about the universe. (“What drives me is my spirituality and trusting God,” he says.) Based in Houston, the institute—also led by NASA veterans—partners with schools and universities and funds research into technologies that could one day enable interstellar travel, ranging from fusion-powered spacecraft (theoretically possible, but far from being a reality) to “space drives, wormholes and space warps” (still entirely conceptual).
Ghaffarian likely won’t be around if any of those happen. But he does envision a near-term future where humans live full-time on a space station and the moon. The next step in that vision is the Intuitive Machines launch to the moon in January. Then comes Axiom Space’s next astronaut mission, also scheduled for early next year. The first section of the new space station is expected to attach to the ISS in 2026—Axiom is the only company that can connect its modules there—with the whole structure up and running by 2031, when the ISS will be retired.
“When you talk about 10, 15, 20 years from now, my hope is that we have a space city, a place where people can actually go and live,” he says. “That would be a really nice building block toward further space exploration for human beings.”
To Ghaffarian, the motivation for building a space station and lunar landers was never just to get rich—even though his investments in them have helped make him very wealthy.
“I didn’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery and I didn’t want my life to be just about making more money,” he says, reflecting on when he sold his first business. “I wanted my life to be more about making a difference, changing the world for the better.”
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