12 Eccentric Projects of the Super-Rich
If money were no object, many of us might fix up an old car or remodel the house. Millionaires and billionaires think bigger. Not content with small stakes, and weary of trophies such as yachts and fancy cars, they use their fortunes to build spaceships, pursue immortality, create island nations, or mine asteroids. Here's a look at a dozen of the most eccentric recent projects of the rich -- many fortunately tilting toward advancing science, especially in our oceans or outer space -- because you're not truly a member of the club without one.
Many have daydreamed what it would be like to live forever, but few have the cash to pursue that dream. Dmitry Itskov, a Russian media mogul who at just 31 had a net worth of more than $1 billion, gathered scientists and charged them with developing a way to turn humans slowly into biological robots. The final phase of the project, which involves the brain being downloaded into an immortal avatar, is set to be complete by 2045.
Most of us watched "Jurassic Park" and thought "Thank goodness it's just a far-fetched Hollywood flick." Not mining millionaire Clive Palmer, who was inspired to make his own. When the project was announced, there was speculation he might mean cloning real dinosaurs, but the finished product is merely animatronic versions -- more than 160 -- placed around Australia's Palmersaurus, making it the world's largest dinosaur park.
"Titanic" and "The Abyss" director James Cameron stops at nothing to bring a sense of realism to his aquatic adventures, though the $10 million he spent building the Deepsea Challenger might be a cap. He used the vessel for a record-setting dive in the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. Then he donated it to Massachusetts' Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
PayPal co-creator and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has his sights set on building a city in the ocean -- several micro-nations, really. These tiny libertarian utopias imagined by his Blueseed project would be on diesel-powered, movable rigs weighing several thousand tons, but residents wouldn't be weighed down by welfare, minimum wage, or regulations. The project, starting with one ship, is "on hold pending additional funding."
The precious metals we need for our technology overflow in asteroids that pass near Earth, if only we could get at them. Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Cameron, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis have launched the Planetary Resources mining company to try -- or, rather, to figure out a way to try, since no one really knows what's on those asteroids hurtling around us. So far, Planetary Resources has raised $21 million just to look at our own planet.
What's with rich people and submarines? Branson, one of the world's most prolific billionaires (he operates some 360 companies), took over a deep-sea project after a friend's death. Virgin Oceanic's DeepFlight Challenger was being built to pilot Branson to the deepest points of the world's five oceans, but safety issues shelved it -- and Cameron set the record first, anyway. There's no word what this cost Branson, but he eventually planned to charge as much as $500,000 for others to borrow the vessel.
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore is a major bankroller of a $1.3 billion plan to build the world's largest telescope. At 10 times the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, it's known as the Thirty Meter Telescope for its diameter, but is also 18 stories high. The plan is to build it on Hawaii's dormant Mauna Kea volcano, but that's been slowed by legal challenges over potentially sacred lands.
Dennis Tito, a former NASA scientist and now chief executive of investment management firm Wilshire Associates, paid Russians $20 million in 2001 to become the very first space tourist. Tito must have been impressed, because he plans to send two people on a 501-day journey around Mars next year.
Schmidt and his wife Wendy have used a reported $94 million for the creation of an ocean vessel called Falkor, which researchers can use for free so long as they share information with the public, and if selected in the first place: Some 120 applications come in for a half-dozen slots annually. Falkor's first excursion located a polar exploration vessel that sank off Greenland in 1943.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos contributed $42 million for the construction of a clock -- designed to tell time for 10,000 years -- to be placed in a mountain in Texas. The purpose is a little hazy, though Wired magazine described it as ideally changing how humanity thinks about the future and purpose.
Robert Klark Graham became a millionaire by inventing shatter-proof plastic eyeglass lenses, then set his sights on less well-received goals. From 1980 to 1999 he ran a eugenics-themed sperm bank, the Repository for Germinal Choice, for donations only from Nobel Prize laureates. With donors scarce, he expanded his criteria, reportedly accumulating donations from about 19 men. More than 215 children were born through the program.
Elon Musk is known for co-founding PayPal and creating Tesla and space travel company SpaceX. In between, he's another billionaire who toys with submarines, buying the tricked-out Lotus Esprit used in the James Bond movie "The Spy Who Loved Me" for around $1 million and telling reporters he wanted to turn it into a real submersible car. The plan was still on as of a year ago.