The Space Barons (review): An inside look at three billionaires disrupting the aerospace industry

In The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 science fiction novella by Robert Heinlin, Delos D. Harriman — a mercurial business magnate and the last of the so-called robber barons — is determined to be the first man to walk on the lunar surface. He’ll do anything to fund his journey. He pre-sells flights. He accepts contributions from children promising their names will be engraved on the moon. He offers naming rights to craters and mountains. He even promises postal covers cancelled from space – at a price, of course. In the end, Harriman never succeeds in visiting the moon, but his spacecraft manages to fly a man to the moon and back. (It was a one-seater.)

Fast-forward to 1982 and the taping of a literary talk show – yes, you heard right, a show all about books and writers, in English no less — hosted by Studs Terkel and his straight-man sidekick, Calvin Trillin. The guests for this particular episode featured a triumvirate of sci-fi writers: Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Isaac Asimov. After a brief discussion about what qualifies as genre fiction, Terkel brought up the oft-cited prophetic nature of the “better” science fiction. Not one of the three lent any credence to the idea. Hogwash, they seemed to say. In order to substantiate the point, Ellison pointed to The Man Who Sold the Moon and the fact that space travel was only made possible by the government and not private industry. His tone suggested that Heinlin’s idea bordered on laughable.

Fast-forward one more time to the 2018 and the publication of Christian Davenport’s highly accessible though slightly uncritical book, The Space Barons (PublicAffairs). It recounts the charismatic charge of three and a half self-made billionaires who share the vision, courage, and audacity to challenge the existing paradigm of space travel, namely that it occurs under government dime and direction. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, and to a limited degree, Paul Allen star in this tale about how private business is attempting to transform how and why humans go to space.

Unless you’ve been living in some remote place removed from all things cyber, you’ve probably stumbled across some mention about Blue Origin (Bezos), SpaceX (Musk), and Virgin Galactic (Branson). Much of the story told in The Space Barons is in the public domain which isn’t surprising considering the fact that Musk and Branson never met a megaphone they didn’t like. Still, Davenport’s access to key players, from the companies’ founders to its employees, lends authority to his account.

Unfortunately, big interviews with larger than life figures often result in the verbal equivalent of white noise. Bezos’ interview demonstrates this well enough. That’s fine because, in this case, it’s the fleeting glimpses behind the opaque publicity machines that breathes air into the narrative. Some originate from good old journalistic sleuthing, for example, Bezos’ grandfather’s work with DARPA, while others come from the mouths of people involved, in particular people like Brian Mosdell who recalled the moment that they realized that Musk and SpaceX were every bit as serious and legitimate as the large defense contractors he’d worked for in the past,

“I saw at least $25 million of flight hardware in various stages of fabrication. That’s when my head snapped and I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is the real deal.’”

The disruption of a top heavy government agency with entrenched interests, relationships, and culture is a central theme in The Space Barons. It’s an indictment of a trigger-shy agency that has settled for cautious mediocrity, at least when it comes to manned space travel. Neil de Grasse Tyson put it a thousand times more succinctly than I ever could when he declared that NASA “had gone boldly where we had gone hundreds of times before.

(Personally, I’m reminded of a line in Armageddon where, after being recruited to save the world, Bruce Willis exclaims, “I mean, you’re NASA for crying out loud, you put a man on the moon, you’re geniuses! You’re the guys that’re thinking shit up!” (Maybe the makers of the film were critiquing the aerospace industry? (Though I could be reading too much into the whole thing.))

While Davenport covers key moments in Branson’s time with Virgin Galactic, including the fatal crash involving one of his test pilots, the book very much feels like the Jeff and Elon story. (Coincidentally, both read Heinlin in their youth. He may well be to aerospace entrepreneurs what Ayn Rand is to libertarians.) That notion is reinforced by his reliance on the Tortoise and the Hare fable to describe Bezos’ and Musk’s diverging approaches to building rockets and their race towards a common goal. It’s a fitting metaphor, no doubt. It also begs the question: if Bezos is the tortoise and Musk, the hare, does that mean that Branson is the mug on the sidelines holding the starter’s pistol shooting blanks? I could be reading too much into things again.

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX

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