[Book] The bold pioneers of commercial space flight

Billionaires who made their money with internet companies are reshaping space flight. Christian Davenport gives a lively account of how sheer determination has left NASA gasping for air. A book about boldness and fierce competitiveness.

The Space Barons' author has actually spoken to all the main actors, not just emptied his drawer of newspaper clippings.

With books like The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, about the billionaire pioneers of commercial space flight, its wise to read the acknowledgements first. And of course, there they are: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. So Washington Post journalist Christian Davenport has actually spoken to all the main actors, not just emptied his drawer of newspaper clippings.

The one missing billionaire in the acknowledgements, though not in the book’s story, is banker Andy Beal, who in 1997 was the first to set up a space company from scratch, after the US government had given the green light to allow private space flight. Beal Aerospace folded in 2000. Competing with NASA had proven to be a crazy idea, especially when you had no experience in space flight.

But that didn’t stop Jeff Bezos from founding Blue Origin in that same year, followed two years later by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Both companies have since proven they are able to launch. Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are relative newcomers in the field, so it is only natural that Musk and Bezos receive the most attention in The Space Barons.

‘Nasa did not take these internet cowboys seriously’

That title, with its reference to the railway barons who opened up the American plains in the nineteenth century, gives away Davenport’s intentions. His book is not so much about the space technology itself as about the boldness and fierce competitiveness that drive entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, who knew how to build companies in markets that didn’t even exist when they ventured into them.

At first, Nasa did not take these internet cowboys seriously: they simply didn’t know how much money, time and knowledge it took to build a viable spacecraft. A few people thought at least Elon Musk was different, someone who would not tolerate defeat. The rest soon found out. When NASA awarded a contract to a different company that Musk thought should be his, he sued. And won. Nobody laughed at SpaceX after that.

In December 2015 SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket achieved something that had eluded NASA for half a century, launching a rocket and then having it return safely to the platform instead of crashing in the ocean. Blue Origin achieved the same trick a year later. Both are aiming for the moon now and are expecting to travel to Mars within five years.

Davenport’s account is lively and insightful, though a bit too chatty and superficial at times. While it’s directed at a general rather than an engineering audience, anyone eager to learn how audacity can shape technology as much as painstaking research should read The Space Barons.

  • Christian Davenport,The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, Public Affairs Books, 2018, ISBN 978-1-61039-829-9

Christian Jongeneel, freelance editor TU Delta

Bonus: an audio podcast on the same book: