Jason DavisMar 21, 2018

Book Review: The Space Barons

The Space Barons
The Space Barons Image: PublicAffairs

The first thing I'll say about Christian Davenport's new book, The Space Barons, is that Davenport made a good call leading off with an incredible story about Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and a helicopter crash in West Texas. Not just any helicopter crash, mind you: This one involves a creek named Calamity, a sketchy pilot named Cheater, and a tour guide who knew "exactly nothing" about Bezos, Amazon.com and the Internet in general. I was actually a little worried the helicopter story would make the book feel front-loaded, but fortunately, it didn't. There's plenty of meat throughout the rest of The Space Barons to keep readers interested—even those who already know a lot about the commercial space industry. 

The Space Barons focuses on SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, with an emphasis on their eccentric leaders: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. There's also a lot about Paul Allen, who bankrolled SpaceShipOne, the first private vehicle to reach space. Davenport had access to all four people, as well as some of their inner circles, and this allows him to offer new insights on events both known and not well-known.

One example is from 2013, when a Dragon spacecraft suffered a stuck thruster during its second paid cargo run to the International Space Station. As engineers in SpaceX mission control frantically worked on the problem, Lori Garver (deputy NASA admin), Bill Gerstenmaier (head of NASA human spaceflight), and Michael Suffredini (ISS program manager) watched quietly. Despite having 60 years of spaceflight experience between them, Gerstenmaier and Suffredini stayed out of the way, Garver recalled, playing the role of advisors rather than pushing their way in to fix the problem.

"And it was almost like grandpa taking them fishing: 'Try over there. There might be some fish over there,'" she says in the book. Davenport adds: "A soft touch designed to let the kids learn to fish on their own, rather than an impatient dad's just grabbing the pole and catching the fish for them."

I don't fish, but as a Dad who often struggles not to grab the fishing pole, I liked the metaphor. SpaceX fixed the thruster problem, and Dragon made it to the station without a hitch. It's a nice passing-of-the-torch story that cuts against the oversimplified NASA-versus-SpaceX narrative.

Davenport's biggest contribution to the space literature, however, might be some new insights into Jeff Bezos. I had pretty much zero visibility into Bezos before reading this book. First of all, I learned he has actual cowboy credentials, having spent some of his childhood on his grandfather's farm in Texas. So when Bezos puts on his sweet Gradatim Ferociter boots, rest assured he's not just doing it for style. When you're out tramping through creosote bushes to recover your space capsule, you need a little ankle protection in case you disturb an ornery rattlesnake.

Like Elon Musk, Bezos has a long-held interest in space, dating back to childhood days watching the original Star Trek. Whereas Musk wants to colonize Mars as a backup for Earth, Bezos wants to preserve the Earth by doing all our dirty work in space. He says that Earth should be like a national park, zoned residential and light industrial. And while Musk paints colonizing Mars as the ultimate adventure, Bezos is a little less excited about leaving home. In one quote, he rattles off all the things that Mars doesn't have, and won't have, for quite a long time: "no whiskey, no bacon, no swimming pools, no oceans, no hiking, no urban centers."

There's not a lot of insight into how Blue Origin builds its rockets, which is perhaps not surprising, given the company's secrecy. There are, however, some fascinating insights into how SpaceX keeps costs down. A chapter called "Dependable or a Little Nuts?" rattles off a long list of ways SpaceX has saved money over the years, including a $30 Dragon cargo latch to replace a $1500 latch, a rocket alignment tool purchased on eBay, and a modified commercial air-conditioning unit to keep payloads cool on the launch pad instead of the usual $3 or $4 million speciality version. 

The book also has some interesting tangents beyond the major players, such as a brushup on Beal Aerospace, one of the first serious commercial rocket companies. There's a fun recap of Bezos's quest to recover Apollo 11's F-1 engines from the ocean, and a side trip to a 1920 New York Times editorial scolding Robert Goddard for believing a rocket engine would work in a vacuum. 

If The Space Barons has an overall message, it's pretty straightforward: these companies and leaders changed the rocket business, and they're still changing it today. The book also reminded me of just how stunning the rise of these commercial companies has been. Less than 10 years ago, SpaceX had only reached orbit once, and Blue Origin had flown a test rocket 285 feet into the air. Now, the Falcon 9 has flown 50 times, and Blue Origin has flown the same suborbital launch vehicle rocket five times. What will the next 10 years bring?

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