An immigrant with $5 in his pocket and a dream can land a spaceship on the moon: Naveen Jain

Moon Express will soon become the first private company to launch a rocket to the moon.

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By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC : Naveen Jain, the founder and CEO of inome, InfoSpace, Moon Express, and several other tech-oriented companies, is a visionary entrepreneur.

Naveen Jain
Naveen Jain

A former Microsoft employee who joined the firm in 1989, Jain left to form his own IT company, InfoSpace, in 1996. He rode the dot-com bubble’s rise through the next several years, becoming a billionaire in 2000 when stock prices hit their highest mark, with his personal wealth alone totaling around $2.2 billion.

Today, Jain is at the front of Moon Express, a company he started to find economically feasible ways to send people to the moon, for a variety of reasons. Jain has also given numerous TEDx talks and written op-eds in magazines like Forbes, detailing his approaches to fixing the US education system, solving the world’s clean water problems, and improving healthcare.

In an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, Jain, an alumni of IIT Kharagpur, and XLRI in India, talks about the US education system, why it’s so important to venture into space when we already have so many problems here on Earth, and why governments need to be disregarded entirely when it comes to enacting meaningful social change.

Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve said in the past that the US education system no longer needs to be fixed, but must be completely overhauled because it has become obsolete. Yet year after year, studies come out saying that the US remains the number one destination for international students seeking the best higher education. So what is it about the US education system that continues to attract such high-value students if it’s become so obsolete, as you say?

People are attracted by the brand, and by the value that used to exist for it. A lot of international students are attracted because of brand that was created over the past hundred years, and a lot of institutions became very successful over the years because they were teaching exactly what was needed at the time by society.

You have to go back, look at our education system, and you need to ask yourself is “Why do I want to educate children?” It’s something that most people forget to even ask themselves because we know we have to do it, but it’s still important to ask “why?” Once you get the answer to that, you can set out to do exactly what it is you want to do.

Our current education system was designed for the industrial era. The US needed to mass-produce a number of workers who were specialized in many different skills. So it became like an assembly line where you group the products by their date of manufacture, you send them down the line, they each get tweaked a little bit this way or that way, but never too much because there just isn’t time, and then they come out at the end of it as people who can very easily be replaced by someone else, because everyone has been through pretty much the exact same system.

But the biggest problem is that technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that industries are very quickly becoming obsolete. They just can’t keep up. For example, newspapers used to be on the cornerstones of society; now, who actually goes to a newspaper to get their news? So several industries that we think are doing perfectly fine really need to be re-evaluated and looked at from a modern standpoint – education is ripe for that.

One example I often give is video games. Video games could be a great learning tool. Our 16 year-old just bought a video game and it didn’t even come with a manual! Within hour, he was an expert at it. Kids learn so much better and so much faster when you adapt the education system to how they learn [because] each kid learns differently. If you teach them with a multi-modal approach – audio, video, all kinds of multimedia – these take advantage of how the human brain works, how it absorbs and retains information.

Industries continue to stagnate because they all have their own experts leading the way. Industry experts cannot disrupt things and cause real change because they’ve spent their whole lives learning and doing things a certain way. It takes a non-expert, someone from outside the industry, to come in with a fresh perspective and try to change things.

So is there an education system anywhere in the world that you can point to and say, “That’s our model, that’s what we need to strive to become?”

Well, the US education system is already being disrupted. It’s important to realize that the first version of just about anything is never exactly what you [the designer, the consumer] want. Look at MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses. They haven’t been very successful yet, but they’re a step in the right direction. You have a teacher teaching a lesson, and a camera there that puts it online for others to see. Already you’re spreading information that was previously only accessible to a privileged few. From there it evolves and evolves until it gets to where it should be.

Imagine if you could have a university that had the best professor in every subject? That’s impossible for any one university to have; one will have the best chemistry professor, another will have the best biology professor, and so on. But imagine if an online university could have the best professors in each field teach from wherever they are – companies are trying to do just that. Now the next step is to make it adaptive, and then take it from there.

Since we’re talking about technology, let’s discuss your moon venture. You’re now trying to privatize space travel to take people not just into space, but to the moon as well. Talk about how that came about, what sparked your interest in such a venture, and frankly, why it’s so important to go into space when there are still so many problems to fix down here on Earth.

To me, the Earth is nothing more than a spaceship going through a much larger universe. If you look at the bigger picture, the Earth is a tiny dot that’s barely visible. And what we [humans] do is mine the resources we need right here on our own planet. We’re constantly going from Antarctica to the Arctic trying to mine the resources we need to cater to a human population that is constantly growing, and it’s only a matter of time before we completely run out of those resources.

But the thing is, the resources that we’re struggling to get here on Earth are actually in abundance on the moon. For example, elements we need for catalysts – such as helium-3 [and] platinum – are plentiful in space and on the moon. Just about anything we need is already there in larger quantities in space, so why do we need to limit ourselves to mining only Earth? We need to start looking at the moon as another continent, the eighth continent of the Earth, so that we can go out there to mine its resources and make humanity better.

Also, the interesting thing is that the cost of the technology to make this happen has come down so significantly that things which weren’t possible just ten or twenty years ago are very possible today. The first time man landed on the moon [in 1969], it cost us tens of billions of dollars. When NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] looked at the cost to go back to the moon, it was estimated at between one and five billion dollars.

The moon project we [Jain and Moon Express] are looking at now is going to cost just $50 million.

So imagine: if the first mission is just $50 million, that means the second mission is going to cost even less than that. A lot of the cost for the initial mission goes into developing software; once that is done, the marginal cost for the second mission is going to be very low, perhaps even under $25 million. Then the third mission could be only $10 million.

Another large part of the cost comes from building the rocket, and even those costs are coming down significantly. At first there was only one company building the parts it took to make a rocket that could go into orbit or go to the International Space Station. Now there are eight or nine different companies, and when that happens, prices go way down because of competition. What we are building is essentially the software that can take use from beyond just our orbit and [take us] to the moon, or even further than that. Because there’s no friction and no gravity, we don’t need a lot of fuel to take us from Earth’s geo-orbit to the moon, so costs keep coming down.

To give you another example – for a rocket we’re building, we needed to buy a spectrographic meter, which essentially surveys the ground for us to tell us where we are. The price we were initially quoted on that equipment just a year and a half ago was $1.5 million. Six months ago, it came down to $50,000, and now we just bought it for $1,500! That’s how significantly these costs are coming down, and it’s happening everywhere.

And let me tell you something, which I know is going to make me sound crazy, but just hear me out. The main goal is to do this so we can harvest resources from space. But more than that, the reason for me personally, the reason that I decided to get into this, is that I want to create inspiration for the next generation. I want to be able to show people that an immigrant who came [to the US] with $5 in his pocket and a dream can land a spaceship on the moon.

We’re creating history here. We’re going to become the first company ever to land on any celestial body; it’s never been done. Remember that there was a time when were told that the human body was simply not designed to run a mile in under four minutes. One person showed that it could be done, and that same year, ten other people went and did it, too. When one company shows that it can raise the financing and land on the moon, soon a hundred other companies will be landing on the moon.

So what kind of a timeframe are you looking at for the first moon mission? And with what frequency will these missions continue?

Our first mission is going to be in 2015, which is already less than two years away. In terms of space, it’s practically tomorrow. After that, we’re hoping to have missions go every year, and as costs come down that will be easier to do. The plan is to turn this into a regular business, with people being able to go often and without costs being so high. In the next ten years, my goal is to have people honeymoon on the moon!

As it is right now, though, space excursions are dominated by government agencies around the world. Just recently, the Indian government sent off its first mission to Mars. The US and China have been at the forefront of space for the past several years now – do you think India has what it takes to be competitive?

Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. If private companies can go into space, of course countries can. But the problem with governments is the bureaucratic nature, the unwillingness to take risks – that is where countries fail and private companies succeed. For example, look at NASA. It’s not that people at NASA are dumb and can’t do what we do – they simply don’t take risks. They have a t-shirt that says “Failure is not an option.” Well, when you say that, when you say you’re not willing to fail, it means you’re unwilling to take risks. So they go back and use the same methods and same technology they used ten years ago because it worked then. They never want to innovate because they’re afraid [they] might fail.

It’s understandable to some degree because if they fail, their funding gets cut. But why is it that we can build a rocket for $50 million and NASA can’t do anything for less than a billion? We launched two rockets that failed miserably, but we were able to keep on trying and get things right. As soon as NASA launches something that doesn’t work, the Senate comes down and says “get rid of that piece of s***, we don’t need it anymore.” Which is exactly what they did.

Coming back to India sending a mission to Mars, I really think India should let the private companies handle that. They should take all the technology that they’ve built, make it open-source, and let everybody else go and see what they can do with it. All that technology and software was created with tax money anyway, so it belongs to the people. And once you let the private sector take over, that’s when you see some interesting things start to happen.

Speaking of governments and the failings of bureaucracy – the Aam Aadmi Party has made a huge splash in India with its staunch anti-corruption stance. Do you think the AAP has a fighting chance to gain a foothold in India, and if it does, would it make India a more attractive place to do business for foreign companies? Could you see yourself starting businesses in India if the bureaucracy was more transparent?

I can’t really comment on Indian politics or any one party because I really don’t know anything about the people involved. I don’t believe that the people in politics are inherently bad; I think they’re just part of a system that is so set in its ways, they have no choice but to just go along. I doubt that Manmohan Singh is a bad person because he did not do more to weed out the corruption.

What it comes down to is people think it’s far easier to do something when looking from the outside, but it’s not so simple when you’re on the inside. The system can only be changed by the people themselves. And you change the system by making information transparent, by democratizing information.

The best example I can think of is from my younger days, when I used to travel by train [in India]. If you were travelling long-distance, you needed sleeper seats, and the only way you could get them would be to essentially bribe the conductor. You give him fifty rupees or a hundred rupees and he’ll give you the seat. The minute that India implemented the reservation system, people could reserve a seat online, and immediately that corruption went away.

So the more transparency, the more tracking, the more technology you can bring in, the more likely you are to change the system. Then you create this hall of shame. Someone does something bad? Post it somewhere for everyone to see. Someone sees a photo of a corrupt official and go “oh my God, that’s my neighbor, I’m never going to associate with him ever again!” These kinds of things are what will change the system.

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