Mark Shuttleworth is, undoubtedly, one of South Africa's wealthiest citizens. And he'd accumulated most of his wealth by the age of 27.

Mark was born in the Free State mining town of Welkom in 1973. He grew up in Cape Town and attended Bishops (Dicesian College) boys' school in the leafy suburb of Rondebosch. Mark studied a financial degree in Business Science at the University of Cape Town (UCT), graduating in 1996.

Mark had been a lover of computers from an early age, thanks to the wonders of computer games. While studying on the slopes of Table Mountain at UCT, Mark discovered the internet, and during his final year that he created Thawte, his internet certification company that operated out of his parents' garage in Durbanville. Having entered a niche market at an early stage, Mark found his company the only competitor to VeriSign, who made him an offer he couldn't refuse in 1999. Converted into Rands, it really is an obscene amount, and one that he shared. It is a well-known fact around South Africa that Mark gave each employee, including the Gardener, a million Rand. Not a bad retrenchment package, except that they weren't being retrenched.

After his early success, Mark could have been forgiven for taking a break, maybe a first class around the world trip, but Mark's sights were bigger than that. First he launched HBD, Here Be Dragons1, a venture capital company. Any success HBD had, or indeed has, has paled into obscurity alongside Thawte. He also launched the non-profit The Shuttleworth Foundation that strives for innovation in African education. He also funds and serves on the board of, a voice for developing countries in the digital era.

While always fiercely patriotic, Mark eventually did what most 20-something South Africans seem to be doing these days: he took advantage of his dual nationality and moved to London. He grumbled something about exchange controls and the government bureaucracy hindering international business, before affirming his belief in South Africa's future and his desire to invest in it.

Stars in his eyes

All little boys and most little girls dream of being an astronaut. With more money in his pocket than he knew what to do with, he drew a little inspiration from Dennis Tito. While labelled a "Space Tourist", Mark's intentions were never to just sit back and enjoy the ride of his life.

Mark went to Russia and underwent the necessary medical tests before beginning training with the Russian cosmonauts at the Yuri Gagarin Centre. As he began to visualise his dream materialising, Mark signed a contract with the Russian Space Agency and invited scientists in his native land to develop a space programme for him to conduct.

Mark's training was far from easy. Mark moved to Russia seven months before the launch and set about the training program. In addition to physical training to adapt his body to handle all eventualities (weightlessness, 3.5G forces on launch and 4.5G forces on re-entry, possible landing in deserts, jungles or open Arctic seas), Mark needed training on theory and usage of all the specialised equipment (including simulators of the Soyuz and ISS) and, of course, he had to gain command of the Russian language. Not bad for seven months!

Mark blasted off into space for a ten day trip on April 27, 2002. British newspapers claimed Mark as their own, with headlines: "BRITON IN SPACE!" but anyone looking at a picture of Mark in his spacesuit would know where his heart was: he proudly sported South African flag on his left shoulder. He also wore a badge symbolising the red AIDS-awareness ribbon.

Always one to advance his country, Mark took with him some harmless amusement. After all, ten days in a confined space is a long time. The universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth prepared a few experiments for him:

  • Investigate the effect of zero gravity on soluable protein crystallisation
    or, investigate a process that enables closer examination of the way proteins guard against allergies and viruses, including HIV.
  • Investigate the effect of gravity on the development of stem and embryo cells, and
  • Investigate the effect of microgravity on the cardiovascular system and muscles
He also found time to send and receive e-mail, take a few photos, keep a journal and have a chat with former and present South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

Mark's 10-day, US$20million trip landed in Kazakhstan on May 5, 2002. The outer hull of the Soyuz capsule reached 10,000°C on the way through the earth's atmosphere. "It was a little disturbing. It was more shaky coming down than going up. At one point there was metal melting outside the window." To ensure that he doesn't ever forget his experience, Mark has bought what remains of the capsule and will keep his spacesuit.

What now?

What can the future possibly hold for one who, well shy of 30 years has already made several millions and been into orbit? Despite his recent exploits, Mark's feet are firmly planted in South African soils. Mark plans on embarking on a tour of South African schools with his Hip2B2 (Hip to be Square) campaign, to encourage children to study maths and science. His trip to space, he says, was "an opportunity to make science sexy."

Ladies, did I mention he's single?

1. Here Be Dragons was used on ye olde maps to indicate unchartered territory

Further reading


  3. TNT Magazine, United Kingdom April 29, 2002 Issue 974
  4. South Africa Times May 8, 2002
  5. Daily Mirror May 6, 2002

Thanks to gn0sis for being an infinite source of knowledge and spotting that I have no concept of relative wealth!