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Billionaires ... In ... Space!

Sean Kelly

By January 2009, nearly a half century had passed since the Soviet Union sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. In the midst of the handoff from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, a member of the incoming transition team at NASA, frustrated by how static the agency had become, internally disseminated a PowerPoint slide contrasting progress in human spaceflight with that in commercial aviation:

“In 1961, [Yuri] Gagarin was first person to fly in space—48 years later (Year 2009):

  • 46 people expected to travel to low Earth orbit
  • Risk of Loss of life estimated at 1 in 254

In 1903, Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk—48 years later (Year 1951):

  • 39 million passengers flew on commercial airlines
  • 1 fatal accident in 288,444 departures.”

While this is perhaps an unfair comparison of two very different industries, it captures the concerns that in recent years have driven entrepreneurs into the so-called “new space” industry. What if human spaceflight were as common as travel on passenger planes? What would it take to reach that point? What kinds of opportunities are there in space?

Today’s new breed of space entrepreneurs is the subject of two new books. It’s not unheard of for very similar books to be released at the same time by different publishing houses, but when it does happen it’s usually a bright, blinking arrow pointing to the zeitgeist. In this case, Tim Fernholz in Rocket Billionaires and Christian Davenport in The Space Barons each set out to depict the risks, adventures, conflicts, and disruptions within the new space economy. The authors, respectively from Quartz and the Washington Post, both trace the life experiences that brought billionaires, particularly Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, to found commercial space-launch companies, and the many challenges they have faced since.

The books repeatedly compare the rivalry between Bezos’s Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX to that of the tortoise and the hare. Blue Origin’s incremental and secretive approach suits the company’s motto, Gradatim Ferociter (“Step by Step, Ferociously”) and its mantra, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” The attitude of the SpaceX, by contrast, is “Head down. Plow through the line.”

Musk’s brash approach has been most on display in his struggles for contracts from NASA and the Pentagon. One riveting story, laid out in Davenport’s book, involves a lawsuit Musk filed against NASA over a sole-source contract worth $227 million that the agency had awarded to Kistler Aerospace in 2004. Musk felt that SpaceX ought to have been permitted to compete for that contract. He reached out to one of the few allies that his company then had in the space agency, Liam Sarsfield, to ask him for an explanation. Sarsfield advised Musk to just let it go: The contract was given to Kistler, Sarsfield said, to help Kistler stave off financial woes—and that there would have more contracts like it in the future for SpaceX to bid on. Colleagues and NASA officials counseled Musk not to sue. But he went ahead and sued anyway. As Lawrence Williams, a former SpaceX government-relations operative, remarks:

“In this suit, SpaceX even included Sarsfield’s e-mail [to Musk] as evidence that the contract was to help save Kistler. “This goes to show you the way Elon plays ball,” Williams notes. “He files as part of the government-contract protest the e-mail from Liam Sarsfield, who was then probably our only friend at NASA, saying that ‘this was a life preserver to Kistler—and don’t worry; we’ll try to do something to help you out down the road.’”

The Government Accountability Office eventually forced NASA to withdraw and reopen the contract, allowing SpaceX to compete for it.

From its founding in 2000, Bezos has instilled a company culture at Blue Origin that is more patient. In 2016, while testing the reusability of its New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin “employees painted a tortoise, rearing proudly on its hind legs, on the New Shepard’s hatch [after each test flight], embodying the company’s ‘step by step, ferociously,’ motto,” according to Fernholz. Initially, the company operated more like a think tank, bringing top minds in business, science, engineering, and science fiction together to discuss ways in which they could advance the industry and taking its time to achieve Bezos’s ultimate goal of building communities in space. “We all were working with Jeff in secret, in the ‘Friday afternoon space club,’ as we called it,” recounts Jim Cantrell, an aerospace consultant involved in the brainstorming discussions, in Rocket Billionaires. Tomas Svitek, another witness to those years, remembered some of the odd ideas people proposed during the Blue Origin brainstorming sessions, like the use of space elevators—a theoretical idea that would result in tethering a cable that would reach from the earth’s surface to space in order to transport vehicles into orbit, essentially eliminating the need for many rocket launches—and lasers to launch/transport vehicles into space. According to Svitek, “[Bezos] spent three years looking at it and he realized it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Musk seems very open to tours of SpaceX facilities for government officials and other interested parties, and has shared many SpaceX successes and failures with the world. For Bezos, however, tours are rare. In one such instance described by Davenport, when a NASA team came to visit his Texas facility, the NASA photographer accompanying the team was required to wait outside while the rest of the group toured the factory. Bezos also had a habit of announcing successes months after they had occurred, typically through the company’s blog, unlike Musk who is known for broadcasting his successes and failures in real time.

While both authors trace the emergence of these new space companies and their interactions with members of the industry thoroughly, Davenport provides a much more balanced story of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and the other billionaires joining the race, as well as the individuals who supported and inspired them. Almost every chapter of Space Barons builds equally on the SpaceX/Musk and Blue Origin/Bezos narratives, helping the reader track the progress of both the hare and the tortoise.

Both books also include fascinating biographical details about today’s space entrepreneurs—including stories about individuals and experiences that inspired them. In The Space Barons, Davenport tells the story of Bezos’s relationship with his grandfather, Lawrence Preston Gise, a founding staffer at what is now DARPA; Bezos learned self-reliance during the summers he spent working on his grandfather’s Texas ranch, and those summer trips would later motivate him to choose that part of the country to build a launch-test facility. Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother, describes Elon’s upbringing as “rough” due to the bullying that he experienced as a child. (Perhaps this helps explain SpaceX’s “Head down. Plow through the line” motto.) Eve Branson, mother of Richard Branson—another prominent space entrepreneur discussed in both books—disguised herself as a man in order to fly with Britain’s Air Training Corps; she helped inspire her son’s yearning for adventure in her son. While stories like this are presented by both authors, Davenport provides more detailed accounts of individuals whose lives had an impact on his subjects’ personalities and business styles.

Fernholz, meanwhile, does a good job of explaining the risks involved in the rocket industry. He begins Rocket Billionaires by describing the 2015 launch failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9. This is a theme he returns to again and again, a reality that all participants in the business of launching rockets learn: Space is hard, failure is an option (or at least inevitable), success requires persistence and self-reliance—and deep pockets never hurt.

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