While some may be rolling naked on a bed of cash, many other of the world’s preeminently wealthy are ploughing serious money into advancing our knowledge of history and life beyond Earth. Blockbuster filmmaker James Cameron has been a leading light in helming explorations to uncover the mysteries of history, from the fabled lost city of Atlantis chronicled in new SBS documentary Atlantis Rising to the Titanic and Nazi battleship Bismarck.
But whether hobby or philanthropic endeavour, the question remains: how much will these millionaires and billionaires profit from their ventures? Some undoubtedly will make a fortune, but it’s undeniable their collective billions are also making a difference in catapulting our world forward.
Like a boy with phenomenally expensive toys, Cameron is obsessed with uncovering the mysteries of the deep sea and has been actively pursing his passion since pre-preproduction of the multi-Oscar winning Titanic (1997), making over 70 deep sea dives.
He and his team of scientists have greatly advanced our understanding of the deep seas and the history contained therein. They’ve developed state-of-the-art technology, including the Deepsea Challenger submarine (replete with a mechanical arm to collect samples), which Cameron has donated to science, and digital 3D cameras that have captured new-found discoveries.
In Atlantis Rising, using cutting edge technology, the exploration team discovers six anchors that are up to 4000 years old. Cameron believes they indicate Atlantis is more than just a myth.
Over 33 deep submersible dives to the Titanic shipwreck, Cameron used the likes of mini remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and deep-ocean lighting developed by him and his team to bring the world rarely seen footage. The opulent Turkish Baths, the crew quarters, the belongings of the rich passengers on board and the doomed liner’s boiler room were just some of the highlights.
“Wrecks are human stories. They teach us something about ourselves,” he told The Independent. “A wreck is a fantastic window into the past. Steel can't lie – it doesn't have an agenda. These wrecks are like time capsules. We'll put parking lots over battlefields, but underwater, these sites are frozen in time. By visiting them, we can touch history."
Cameron made history in 2012 as the first person to venture into the Mariana Trench solo, reaching a depth of 11km and discovering new aquatic species. Situated in the Pacific Ocean near Guam, the staggering depth of Mariana surpasses the height of Mount Everest and is 120 times the size of the Grand Canyon. In a six-hour dive, the expedition made the incredible discovery of 68 new species, with, intriguingly, some exhibiting gigantism.
Cameron – who was reportedly worth $US670 million in 2015, then the 10th richest filmmaker in Hollywood – sees his exploratory missions as philanthropy.
"It's a way for me to give something back, in a sense, and not just be a taker who just makes films and makes a lot of money, because ultimately that doesn't really return anything other than entertainment value,” he told The Independent. “I don't want to negate that, but I think there's so much else that can be done.''
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world with a fortune of $US118.8 billion, also looked to the sea for a major historical discovery. He led a search and recovery expedition in 2013 to retrieve parts of the Saturn V rockets used in Apollo missions in the 1960s and '70s from the Atlantic Ocean floor. But the biggest piece of booty found was a F1 engine thruster from the Apollo 11 mission, which saw man first walk on the Moon.
Meanwhile, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, a major player in the life-extension community and worth $US2.5 billion, is looking to resurrect the past in the form of the woolly mammoth. Thiel reportedly donated $US100,000 in 2015 to a Harvard University project that is attempting to clone the extinct prehistoric creature using DNA from frozen mammoths and elephant cells. The experiment has reportedly progressed as far as achieving the growth of woolly mammoth fur on a mouse.
To infinity and beyond
Looking to the future, several billionaires are striving to achieve human existence in space and further our knowledge of the great beyond.
The one making the most noise is Tesla Motors’ $US20.7 billion dollar man and flamethrower peddler Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). His company's mission is to “enable humans to become a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species by building a self-sustaining city on Mars".
The commercial launch service claims to be inching closer to achieving life on Mars with the development of reusable rockets and spacecraft reducing the cost of space travel.
Now, SpaceX is about to face its biggest test in the race to life on Mars. On 6 February, it launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket, which it claims is “the most powerful rocket in operation”, in an attempted unmanned mission (though it is carrying Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster playing David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" on the stereo) to orbit the planet 225 million kilometres away.
Giving Musk a run for his money is Bezos and his space tech company, Blue Origin, which pipped the former at the post in 2015 to successfully launch a rocket into space, returning to Earth to be reused several times for subsequent launches. Bezos has reportedly funnelled $US500 million of his own cash into the company and aims to make space travel infinitely more affordable utilising the reusable rockets. He says a launch could cost as little as $US1 million under the plan.
Then there’s Russian tech investor Yuri Milner, worth $3.7 billion, who has dropped $US100 million into a project that sounds a little like a Dr Evil scheme, hopefully without the evil. Called “Breakthrough Starshot”, it aims to use a giant laser to shoot tiny devices manned with cameras to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s closest star system, with the hope of capturing other life in the universe.
And let’s not forget Richard Branson, worth $US5.3 billion, and his Virgin Galactic which aims to “become the spaceline for Earth; democratising access to space for the benefit of life on Earth”. But unless you’re a millionaire/billionaire, you’ll be saving for a while, with a ticket costing around $US200,000 for a two-and-a-half hour trip. James Cameron was reportedly one of the first to put down a deposit.
Watch Atlantis Rising on Sunday 11 February at 8:30pm on SBS.