(p. 10) “The Space Barons,” by Christian Davenport, a Washington Post reporter, is an exciting narrative filled with colorful reporting and sharp insights. The book sparkles because of Davenport’s access to the main players and his talent for crisp storytelling.
. . .
One of the first private pioneers was Burt Rutan, a mutton-chopped aircraft designer who regarded NASA as a bloated and unimaginative bureaucracy and in 1982 founded a company called Scaled Composites that designed aircraft so innovative that, as Davenport writes, “it was as if his inspiration came not just from the laws of aerodynamics but from Picasso.” One of his ideas was for a manned aircraft that could reach the edge of space and then fold its wings upward to act as a feather allowing the craft to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, land on a runway, and be reused. It would become his entry in the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million for the first private company that could launch a reusable vehicle to space twice within two weeks.
Rutan attracted two billionaire partners. The first was the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who as a schoolboy in Seattle yearned to become an astronaut but, being nearsighted, realized that was impossible so spent his time coding in the school’s computer room with his friend Bill Gates. Rutan’s second partner was the toothy goldilocked Richard Branson, a thrill-addicted serial adventurer and entrepreneur who was as enthusiastic about publicity as Allen was averse to it. Branson’s personal motto for his company, Virgin, was “Screw it, let’s do it,” which was no longer a guiding principle at NASA, and he created Virgin Galactic with the goal of taking tourists into space. “Paul, isn’t this better than the best sex you ever had?” Branson asked Allen during one test flight as the spaceship climbed higher.
In 2004, Rutan’s craft (with a Virgin logo on its tail) flew twice to space and back to win the X Prize. At the celebration, Rutan took a shot at NASA. “I was thinking a little bit about that other space agency, the big guys,” he said. “I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed.'”
. . .
At the end of 2015, within a month of each other, Musk and Bezos both launched rockets that returned safely to earth and were reusable. For the moment, Musk the hare had darted ahead: His powerful Falcon 9 rocket had lifted a payload into orbit, whereas Bezos’ smaller New Shepard craft had merely gone up into the edge of space and returned. But as happens with scrappy entrepreneurial business competitors, in contrast to government bureaucracies, Bezos and Musk were goading each other on. And unlike the race between the tortoise and the hare, they can both triumph — as can, one hopes, Richard Branson and others.
For the full review, see:
Walter Isaacson. “The Right Stuff.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, April 29, 2018): 10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 24, 2018, and has the title “In This Space Race, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk Are Competing to Take You There.”)
The book under review, is:
Davenport, Christian. The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.