The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport, PublicAffairs, March 2018, US $28.00, Pp 320, ISBN 978-1610398299
Nearly half a century after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, American billionaires are investing their billions in commercial space travel. This race to space started in September 2000, when Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon Marketplace, founded Blue Operations LLC, the precursor to Blue Origin. It was followed by Elon Musk who incorporated Space Exploration Technologies in March 2002. The first powered flight of SpaceShipOne took off in December 2003. In September 2004, Richard Branson, the co-founder of Virgin Group, acquired technology behind Space ShipOne and vowed to create the world’s first commercial spaceline with first flights in 2007.
In The Space Barons, Christian Davenport tells the story of this new space race and the direction in which it will take the world. Christian Davenport has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2000 and covers the space and defense industries. Davenport says that Musk and Bezos were the leaders of America’s private sector space program. Although Musk and Bezos have vastly different styles, and temperaments, they are equally obsessed with space and space travel. Davenport says Musk had always been audacious. He had plowed far ahead, his triumphs and failures commanding center stage. Bezos remained quiet and clandestine, his mysterious rocket ventures kept hidden behind the curtain.
Although Musk and Bezos were the leaders in initiating the space race in the private sector, Davenport says there were others. Like Bezos, Richard Branson was promising to fly tourists past the edge of space to get glimpses of Earth from above and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who had backed the first commercial spacecraft to reach space, was now building the largest airplane the world had ever seen. Bigger than Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, it would be able to air-launch rockets from 35,000 feet – and perhaps even and the new space shuttle, called “Black Ice,” it was developing secretly. Together these space barons were behind some of the biggest brands in the world – Amazon, Microsoft, Virgin, Tesla, PayPal – that have disrupted industries ranging from retail to credit cards to air travel. Now they were betting vast swaths of their enormous fortunes that they could make space available to the masses, and push human space travel past where governments had gone.
The story of their dramatic struggle to open the space frontiers was an improbable one. Their story is full of risk and high adventure, a crash that cost the life of a test pilot, a rocket explosion, and suspicions of sabotage. Davenport recount that there were lawsuits pitting an underdog upstart against the nation’s military industrial complex and a political fight that went all the way to the White House. The new space race is the story of visions to put humans on the moon and Mars. The new space race is the story of the historic landing that heralded what Bezos was calling a new “golden age of space exploration.”
At its heart, the story was fueled by a budding rivalry between the two leaders of this new space movement. Davenport says that the tension would play out in legal briefs and on Twitter, skirmishes over the significance of their respective landings and the thrust of their rockets, and even a dispute over the pad that would launch them, Musk, the brash hare, was blazing a trail for others to follow, while Bezos, the secretive and slow tortoise, who was content to take his step by step in a race that was only just beginning. Davenport writes, “The race has been years in the making, but it had only just begun. It would continue down a long and unforeseeable path, until the years turned to decades and decades into generations, lasting long after the tortoise and the hare were gone. A race past even their own imaginations, deep into the cosmos, to a point in the beyond where there was no finish line.”
The Space Barons tells the untold story of American billionaires’ rivalry in the space program. If the space race in the second half of the twentieth century was between superpowers, it has become a race between American billionaires in the early twenty-first century. Davenport shows how some billionaires have entered the space race and are striving to make space travel for commercial passengers possible. The Space Barons is meticulously researched and more thrilling than a thriller novel.