I came across this book by chance in the library, and it’s one of those fortuitous accidents that don’t come along often. It’s a terrific book: exciting, relevant, eye-opening, and mind-blowing. It’s about the takeover of the space race by private industry in the last couple of decades after a long apathetic period of inertia by NASA, whose crowning achievement was all the way back in 1969 when the first Apollo astronauts landed on the moon.
The main players in this epic drama are all billionaires with lifelong dreams of going to space. They include Elon Musk, who started up SpaceX; Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who quietly created a space-bound company known as Blue Origins; Richard Branson, whose space faring company is called Virgin Galactic; and Paul Allen, whose Stratolaunch airplane, the largest aircraft ever built, is designed to launch rockets and satellites into space. These dynamic men have used their substantial fortunes in part to realize the dream of space tourism and the colonization of the solar system. When they began they encountered derision, but in time they earned respect as they started to make good on their promises. SpaceX already contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and soon will likely be carrying astronauts as well; it’s also planning a trip around the moon with tourists aboard. Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic are also very near the point at which they will take on tourists for thrilling suborbital space flights.
The ultimate goals of these young upstart companies are to commercialize the solar system: ferry supplies and establish colonies on the moon and Mars, mine the asteroids for raw materials, and set up legions of satellites in orbit with a vision of interconnecting every corner of the globe. Bezos, for instance, says that ultimately the Earth should be as lovely and refreshing as a park, and heavy industry will all move off-planet. Perhaps not in his lifetime, but if there’s anything that’s evident as you read this book, it’s that these men have a much larger vision than immediate returns.
Interspersed throughout this fascinating account are snippets of the history of the original space race, but really this story is about the billionaires themselves and how their backgrounds and circumstances made it possible for them to take these bold steps to the stars. Each of them has a back story of absorption in news accounts of the early space programs and an abiding interest in the classics of science fiction. Once they were in financial positions to be able to do so, their minds naturally and irrevocably turned to what they could do to reach out beyond our planet.
To make space flight common, viable, and affordable, the men who founded these companies realized that they’d have to radically cut costs. To this end, they designed rocket stages that, instead of being tossed into the ocean after use, could be landed safely and reused. Their bootstrap method of operation not only saved money, but also saved time, by bringing the innovation that had helped the companies that made their fortunes succeed into the pioneering of this new frontier.
Read this book. It’s envisioning, heartening, and offers a wonderful look into the baby stages of the adventure of exploring our solar system, galaxy, and the universe beyond.
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