The millionaires leading mankind's march to space have a few things in common — in particular, starry-eyed visions of sending humans to the final frontier and galaxy-size bank accounts to launch their ideas into orbit.
But the motivation of Robert Bigelow — who made millions in the extended-stay motel industry then launched his own aerospace company — is kind of, well, out there.
Bigelow told "60 Minutes” reporter Lara Logan that not only is he “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist but that he and his family members have had personal experiences with beings from another planet.
He is, to quote dozens of alien movies, not alone. A Newsweek poll from 2015 showed that 54 percent of Americans believe in intelligent alien life.
But Bigelow is capable of pumping millions of dollars into testing his theories about space colonization and alien life forms.
He spoke about his beliefs and his motivations with Logan, who asked whether he believed that aliens have ever visited Earth.
“There has been and is an existing presence, an ET presence,” he said. “And I spent millions and millions and millions — I probably spent more as an individual than anybody else in the United States has ever spent on this subject.”
By his own admission, it was millions that may not have been needed to make contact with beings from another planet.
“You don't have to go anywhere,” he said. " … It's just like right under people's noses. Oh my gosh. Wow.”
Whether people believe his claims doesn't really matter. He's used his own money — some $290 million, he told "60 Minutes” — to form a company with a stylized alien logo to send things into space.
Last May, astronauts pumped up the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a $17.8 million inflatable space beach ball that Bigelow hopes will be the future of space exploration.
If it can survive the rigors of space, the modules could serve as work spaces, labs and living quarters that are much wider than the narrow tube of a space shuttle.
The module was launched in 2016 and will be attached to the International Space Station for another year as NASA scientists test radiation levels and structural integrity.
As "60 Minutes” reported: “With no formal training in science or engineering, Robert Bigelow created an aerospace company with scientists and engineers that's achieved what no one else in the industry has done. His expandable spacecraft are the first and only alternative to the metal structures that have housed every astronaut in space for over half a century.”
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, told The Washington Post that Bigelow's inflatable module is a promising concept — even if people think his claims about alien contact are dubious.
Shostak said he's talked with Bigelow several times over the years about whether aliens are among us.
He asks the multimillionaire for the same thing he demands of other people who call with claims of close encounters: proof.
“I think the evidence is very poor, and it’s usually witness testimony,” Shostak said. “No one would have ever proved relativity by proving how clever the relativity witnesses are.”
Shostak said he is skeptical that aliens have visited Earth but not of the existence of aliens.
He told The Post that it's hard to believe that of the trillions of planets in our galaxy, there's only one with intelligent life. It's more likely, he thinks, that there's intelligent life that hasn't been detected by humans.
But Shostak said he is a scientist — one who works in a field that has also been the target of intense skepticism. That means he's not ruling anything out yet or writing Bigelow off as an eccentric billionaire.
Not that Bigelow would care.
Near the end of the "60 Minutes” interview, Logan asks the millionaire whether he's worried that people will think he's mentally unstable.
“Is it risky for you to say in public that you believe in UFOs and aliens?” she asks.
“I don't give a damn,” he replies. “I don't care.”
“You don't worry that some people will say, 'Did you hear that guy, he sounds like he's crazy?'
“I don't care,” Bigelow repeated.