Saturday 20 October 2018

The Space Barons: the Silicon Valley heavyweights in a new space race

Non-fiction

The Space Barons

Christian Davenport

Public Affairs, hardback, 320 pages, €28

There's a new space race on - and it's fuelled by rival Silicon Valley heavyweights, discovers Steven Poole

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos
Billionaire entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk
The Space Barons

Why don't we have a moon base already? The last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan, left in 1972. Since then, astronauts have been no further than low-earth orbit in the International Space Station. To space-fanciers, this represents a failure of nerve. But now there is a class of geek with the wealth to make it happen themselves: Silicon Valley's own rocket men.

The South African-born engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk made his billions with an internet payments company that merged with PayPal; Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, founded Amazon. But both had long wanted to make their own spaceships, and boldly go. Now Musk has SpaceX, as well as his electric car company, Tesla Motors, and Bezos has Blue Origin. They build rockets, not all of which blow up on the launch pad. Indeed, SpaceX has become a thriving concern, blasting commercial and military satellites into orbit, and resupplying the ISS. Blue Origin has hitherto been more secretive, financed primarily by fantastic injections of Bezos's own cash, but it now has commercial missions lined up for 2020.

As The Space Barons relates, our two plutocrats have intriguingly different motivations for getting humanity back into space travel. For Musk, founding a colony on Mars is a necessary Plan B to avoid the extinction of the human race by some catastrophic event, such as the collision with Earth of a large asteroid, of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. For Bezos, the point of going into space is to preserve Plan A, the Earth itself. By mining asteroids for minerals and fuel, and moving manufacturing infrastructure out into space, our home planet could be preserved as a greener, less polluted paradise.

Of course, there is also the fact that both men just think space is very cool. When Christian Davenport, the author of this book, interviews Bezos (who is also his boss, as Bezos owns The Washington Post, where Davenport is a writer on space and defence), the Amazon honcho waxes lyrical about Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who was the architect of the Saturn V rocket that sent us to the moon, and is still the largest rocket ever to have flown. Von Braun, Bezos imagines, would be shocked at the lack of progress in space since his death in 1977. "He would be, like, 'What have you guys been up to? What, I die and the whole thing stops? Dudes, get on with it!'" It is unclear whether von Braun, who invented the V2 rocket for the Nazis before being brought over to the US to power their space programme, would really have said "Dudes".

Elon Musk comes across as more self-aware and hands-on. He also has a sense of humour. When one of his rockets explodes, he laconically tweets about a "rapid unscheduled disassembly". And they do explode. Getting to space is an engineering challenge. (This is, after all, rocket science.) One rusted nut can destroy your ship. And things are made more difficult by the fact that both SpaceX and Blue Origin want to develop reusable rockets.

Traditionally, the primary stages of rockets (including the boosters for the space shuttle) have just fallen into the sea after burning out - but that, Davenport points out, is "like throwing away an airplane after flying from New York to Los Angeles". In 2015, one of Musk's rockets delivered nine satellites into orbit, then screeched into reverse, flew back down through the atmosphere, and landed daintily on its own launch pad. That was a first. But rapid unscheduled disassemblies still happen. One destroyed a Facebook satellite that was meant to beam free Facebook-enabled internet to Africa. Given recent news about Facebook, that might have been a blessing.

Davenport is particularly good on the story of SpaceX, the hungry young start-up upending the assumptions of the state-sponsored space industry, where contractors have grown fat on indifference to cost. Rather than buying in components from other companies at what turn out to be ridiculous prices, Musk's company builds everything itself, much of it in a huge hangar in Los Angeles. A particular kind of latch for a locker on board the ISS, for example, had 25 parts and cost $1,500. There were two per locker. A SpaceX engineer, inspired by humble lavatory stalls, designed a better one for $30. At one point Musk even sued Nasa, the very body it most desperately wanted as a customer, because he was being frozen out of tenders to the benefit of the incumbent contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It worked.

There is a lot of rivalry and snark between Musk and Bezos - who at one point pulls the sorry trick of attempting to patent the idea of a rocket that lands by itself, just after Musk has explained how he's going to do it. But the mistrust is worse between the entrepreneurs and the big aerospace companies. Musk even looks seriously into the idea that a competitor might have deliberately shot one of his rockets with a sniper rifle during fuelling.

SpaceX and Blue Origin aren't the only private space companies jockeying for, well, space in this industry. There is also Richard Branson's space-tourism company Virgin Galactic, which has been taking millions in deposits for commercial jaunts into space since 2005, without as yet ever flying anyone into space. Virgin's goal at this stage is only to do "sub-orbital" space flight, just grazing the edge of the atmosphere for a few minutes of zero-gravity before plunging back down again. Seriously cold-blooded space enthusiasts deride this as "like bungee jumping in reverse for the super-rich".

Davenport's book is full of colourful stories about the history and potential future of rocketry, and the space cowboys who are obsessed with it, which provides some amusing one-liners. "The freedom to kill yourself in all manner of stupid ways," he points out, is "part of the American way."

Some might dismiss all this as just another way for rich boys to compare the size of their gantries, and say that instead of spending so much money on space we should concentrate on our problems down here on Earth. But such an attitude won't help us if a massive space rock smashes into the planet. Davenport quotes the old astronauts' line: "Asteroids are nature's way of saying: 'How's that space program going?'"

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