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Jason DavisMarch 29, 2018

Thursday Funpost! Excerpts from the new book Rocket Billionaires

Welcome back for another Thursday Funpost!, where I share pretty pictures, empty the reporter's notebook and/or trawl through the id of the space community. 

I recently posted a review of Christian Davenport's new book, The Space Barons, which came out on March 20. Now, here's the thing: The Space Barons wasn't the only book on Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos released that day. Rocket Billionaires, by Tim Fernholz, a reporter at Quartz, also came out. It's a billionaire-baron book bonanza! 

Full disclosure: I reviewed Christian's book first because the publisher sent me an advance copy. I bought Tim's book myself—from Amazon, of course, so now it occurs to me that these books are part of a PYRAMID SCHEME to fund Blue Origin rocket development. A traditional review of Rocket Billionaires would look pretty much like the one I did for The Space Barons. Both books are meaty enough to satisfy commercial space newbies and experts alike, and if you can only read one, I recommend you check out both reporters' existing writing and pick based on your preferred prose. Christian writes more like a newspaper reporter, whereas Tim uses quirky turns of phrase that actually sent me to Google a couple times.

Anyway, rather than post a similar review for Rocket Billionaires, I noted some of my favorite lines from the book, which I'll share below. Enjoy! 

On NASA after Apollo:

It became a baroque institution focused primarily on building and maintaining the most expensive contraption constructed in human history: the International Space Station (ISS), a research outpost in orbit.

Dang, Tim! Knives out—this is on the first page!

On a Congressional hearing starring Gwynne Shotwell and Tory Bruno:

Her opposite number, ULA chief executive Salvatore "Tory" Bruno, faced a harder sell.

HOW DID I NOT KNOW TORY'S ACTUAL NAME WAS SALVATORE? This is a fantastic name, and I demand The New York Times start using it on first mention, the way they call my boss William Sanford Nye. 

On a famous Delta II rocket failure in 1997:

Still, Mosdell's boss, a veteran launch director known for his sangfroid, took one look at the monitors, said, "Boys, this is bad," and dove under a computer console.

I had to look up "sangfroid"—it means cool under pressure. Sadly, we don't learn much more about this straight-talking, console-diving launch director, but for some reason I'm picturing a Randy Quaid-esque Independence Day character.

On Russian rocketry at the end of the Cold War:

Visiting Americans described engineers using blueprints instead of computer records, but the Russians had their own advantages, including advanced techniques for working with titanium and a grimly efficient outlook on safety. "Workers must be careful; nevertheless, we have replacements," a Russian executive told a visiting American shocked by workers clambering around enormous rocket construction bays without harnesses.

"We have replacements" is my new favorite phrase to chastise someone doing something careless. 

On Burt Rutan's approach to problem solving during the X-Prize competition:

Scrambling for a solution, Rutan settled on air-to-air missiles like the Sidewinder and the AMRAAM, which were essentially small solid fuel rockets launched by NATO fighter jets during aerial battles. Two such missiles, with their warheads removed, attached to SpaceShipOne at the correct angle and fired at exactly the same time, could hypothetically provide enough oomph to get the vehicle over its invisible finish line in the sky.

This is amazing. Too bad Rutan's team ended up stripping weight from the vehicle instead. But the next time I see SpaceShipOne at the Smithsonian, I'm going to picture a couple Sidewinder missiles strapped to its belly like an F-15.

On NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe:

With little background in space, O'Keefe was a green-eyeshade budget man.

I'm not going to lie, I first read this as "green-eyeshadow," and thought maybe O'Keefe was once the lead singer in a David Bowie cover band, which would be pretty awesome. But after reading it again I realized Tim was probably referring to those little green accounting visors. 

On insuring your best assets:

Still, NASA required SpaceX to take out "key man" insurance on Musk—which would pay out in the event of his death—given how vital he was to the financing and future of its new partner. "If he went away, that was the end—there was no SpaceX," Lindenmoyer said.

Prudent!

On Obama's visit to SpaceX in 2010:

However he got there, the dominant image of the event is Obama, his jacked tossed coolly over one shoulder in the Florida humidity, listening with interest as Musk, wearing a truly ugly tie, explained SpaceX to him.

YES. Thank you, Tim, for pointing out that tie. I have also studied that picture and noticed the contrast between the two mens' outfits. Obama looks sharp, as usual, but Elon could have used a tailor, and his tie is a definite miss. The only redeeming part of his outfit is the shoes—probably Italian, which he is known for wearing.

Side note: I have recently become a SHOE GUY. I don't know how this happened. My most recent purchase was a pair of light pink suede shoes with white soles, and I love them. They looked awesome until my daughter stepped on my foot and gave one a black smudge. I love you, sweetie, but CAREFUL AROUND MY SWEET KICKS. 

On testing Dragon's nose cone:

"To test, as cheaply as possible, the nose cone's ability to pop off after reaching orbit, the Dragon team bought a children's bouncy castle and ejected the cone inside. It worked just fine."

Test as you fly bounce!

Finally, on Blue Origin's new Florida factory:

In the course of complying with environmental rules, the company will plant 300,000 shrubs; it will also plant "space seeds" flown past the Kármán line by New Shepard. 

Okay, that's a pretty cool idea. I would pay a premium for some space seeds to grow some space shrubs or space trees in my yard. But Blue Origin should be careful—the last time humanity played around with space seeds, we ended up with a genetically engineered warlord.

That's it for this week's Funpost! If you have questions or topics you'd like for a future Funpost!, email me at [email protected]

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Jason Davis

Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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