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Private fortunes fund search for new frontiers

Some billionaires blow their fortunes at explorations on and under the sea, or in space. It's a virtue not only for their own egos, writes Erik Bergin, but could also become a new leap for mankind.

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blog-byline_sharp EXPENSIVE ADVENTURES — What have the British airline entrepreneur Richard Branson, Australian mining tycoon Clive Palmer, American movie director James Cameron, and the world’s first space tourist Dennis Tito in common? Answer: They all spend their millions on unusual travel projects. Branson, old in the game, of course runs Virgin airline, but he also crossed the Pacific in an hot air balloon as early as 1991. From that he ventured into the space business, setting up Virgin Galactic as one of the first private outfits aiming at space tourism. Doing that he became companion with Dennis Tito, who a few years ago spent a considerable amount of his fortune on a private trip into space. One who seems to prefer deep depths rather than high altitudes is movie director James Cameron, maker of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, who as late as March 2012 ventured on an expedition down to the ocean’s deepest point: a spot in the far western Pacific called the Challenger Deep. “There are so many of these extremely deep places that, together, form the last unexplored frontier on our planet,” said Cameron to NPR afterwards. Cameron knew what he was doing, though – while preparing for Titanic he explored the wreck where it rests on the bottom of the Atlantic, too.

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Billionaires clockwise from upper left: Movie maker James Cameron, mining tycoon Clive Palmer, space adventurer Dennis Tito, and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.

Billionaires clockwise from upper left: Movie maker James Cameron, mining tycoon Clive Palmer, space adventurer Dennis Tito, and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.

Then, in the beginning of 2013, came two new additions to this grand collection of unusual ventures in the travel business: mining billionaire Clive Palmer’s plan to re-build the Titanic, and space adventurer Tito’s launch of his Mars expedition plan, where two people – preferably a married couple – are to be sent on a 500 days long journey around the Red planet.

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Besides the fact that one sunken vessel plays a disproportionately large role in all this, what can we learn from these undertakings? Well, that guys like these are the world’s new explorers, perhaps our most hopeful searchers for new frontiers. It’s billionaires like these and their fortunes, not states, that are likely to be the main financiers of ventures into space in the years to come. The U.S. space agency NASA may have set a target in time for putting a human on Mars, but with the latest Washington debacle, the budget sequester, in full swing and a growing concern in the United States for its national debt, it is unlikely that NASA will regain its position as the No. 1 Space Explorer anytime soon. (Read our report from Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Space Coast here.)   So, it is good or bad that private fortunes and the size of them will decide how far mankind will reach on its quest to reach new destinations, rather than governments? A practical way of looking at it is of course that there are better ways to spend tax revenues than sending a man into space. Bu that’s too easy – we’re humans, and as such we are unified by great feelings of success when we together can master new technologies and the huge hardships it means to, for example, sending a man to the Moon. In that sense, those early days of space exploration might have meant more to humanity than almost any previous world-wide events, let alone the end of WWII in 1945. We need these explorations to have something to dream about, if nothing else, and they also tend to push technology forward, and thus improving society in a larger context. While personal ego might play large parts in the attempts of Palmer, Branson, Cameron and the others to master oceans and space, for all the spectators watching from the sidelines it’s a good show for free. And one can only applaude those who are willing to spend their money on things that make the world a funnier place. So I say, go for it! Break new barriers and reach new frontiers, boys! Wherever your money come from.

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.