Larry Connor, the leader of eponymous Ohio-based real estate firm The Connor Group, earlier this year signed on to fly to the International Space Station. But first, before beginning his astronaut training, Connor will dive to the bottom of the ocean.
Connor is partnering with deep sea specialist EYOS Expeditions to next week explore both the Challenger Deep and the Sirena Deep of the Mariana Trench in the DSV Limiting Factor submersible of Triton Submarines. Then, in January 2022, Connor will be the pilot for Axiom Space’s 10-day AX-1 mission to the ISS, flying on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“I’ve never had the time and never had the money, but I’ve always had a passion about exploration and about trying to do groundbreaking research,” Connor told CNBC about his upcoming missions. “I’m not a scientist, but I believe that the private sector can do unbelievable things to help all people.”
Connor said that EYOS Expeditions reached out to him shortly after the AX-1 mission was announced, asking him if he would help cover part of the costs of an upcoming mission – and, in return, join the trip as a co-pilot and mission specialist.
“They’ve been doing groundbreaking research in the Mariana Trench over the last couple of years [and] they want to continue that, but it’s very expensive,” Connor said. “Frankly, I didn’t know anything about deep sea exploration … but the more I learned, the more I became convinced that these individuals were absolutely professional, and that it could be done and could be done safely, and that the research would in fact be valuable.”
While Connor may not be a scientist, he considers himself “fortunate in that I’ve done a lot of unusual things” due to his passion for exploration.
The Connor Group operates in 15 U.S. cities, which the entrepreneur credits to “an immensely talented and experienced group” who will keep the firm running during his trips.
Next Monday he will travel to Guam, with the first dive to the Challenger Deep on either Wednesday or Thursday – dropping down more than 35,000 feet to the extreme environment of the deep ocean floor.
A few days later Connor will dive again, to the Sirena Deep – “where there’s only ever been two humans there before,” he said.
“Our challenge is going to be trying to map some of the bottom, and explore where nobody’s ever been. We anticipate that being a long dive – probably 13 to 15 hours in total,” Connor said.
The submarine DSV Limiting Factor features a small cabin, about four and a half feet wide by four and a half feet tall, for its two passengers. “It’s literally a titanium ball that you sit in,” Connor said.
While visiting Triton Submarines’ headquarters in Florida last week to check out a simulator and get some basic training, the real estate entrepreneur said that the “short answer is you really don’t” train for this kind of deep sea mission.
Connor is aiming to be the first person to travel to both the deepest part of the ocean and outer space within 12 months.
He’d be just the third person in history to travel to both, as former NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan became the first – and the first woman – when she dove to Challenger Deep in August 2020, with private astronaut Richard Garriott becoming the second on a dive earlier last month.
Flying to space early next year
While the deep sea dive has come together in a matter of months for Connor, he’s been researching flying to space for nearly seven years.
The AX-1 mission will be led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, as well as two mission specialists in former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe and Canadian investor Mark Pathy.
“It will be the first private mission to the International Space Station and, in my opinion, we’re going to do it right,” Connor said. “We’re going to do it to professional astronaut standards, we’re going to do the training, because I think we have an opportunity but a real obligation to to get it right.”
Connor said he and López-Alegría will undergo two weeks of additional training, beyond the 15 weeks of training the full crew plans to begin in the fall of this year.
He said the crew visited the headquarters of Elon Musk’s company once so far to be fitted for their spacesuits, describing the facility as “a beehive of activity” and saying he was “struck by the masses of really talented, committed people who, I got a sense for, were working crazy hours to make groundbreaking things happen.”
He credited NASA for its experience in human spaceflight, as well as for turning to private companies to begin flying astronauts frequently and efficiently.
“In my experience, if you really want to propel things forward at a rapid rate, you’ve got to get the private sector involved, whether it’s going to the bottom of the ocean or going to outer space,” Connor said.
Connor also recognized that, while AX-1 may be the first all-private trip to the ISS, it’s still “very expensive.”
“But hopefully – in making what we believe is an investment upfront – in 20, 30, 40 years, whether it’s going to the bottom of the ocean or outer space, it is far more accessible to people, to go along with the value of the research,” Connor said.
Asked for his advice to young entrepreneurs, who may ask how Connor got to where he can afford these missions, he delivered a simple response.
“Aim high. Never set limits. Never put a ceiling on what you can do. The impossible is only impossible if you think it’s impossible,” Connor said.