Space is hard: That used to be the excuse for explaining why sending people into space would always be something only governments could do. Now it explains why even billionaires find the feat difficult.
To persevere, even billionaires have to have a passion for spaceflight, most likely fostered at an early age, and an iron resolve to weather adversity. That comes through loud and clear in two newly published books, plus a TV documentary that’s premiering tonight:
- The Smithsonian Channel’s “Billionaire Space Club” takes advantage of video recorded last year during a grand tour of the commercial space frontier anchored by Brian Cox, a British physicist and TV host. (Strangely, the Americanized show takes no advantage of Cox’s star appeal.)
- “Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the New Space Race” is written by Tim Fernholz, a reporter for the Quartz news site.
- “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos” is by Christian Davenport, a staff writer for The Washington Post.
As the book titles suggest, all three works focus most sharply on the rivalry between Musk and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon as well as his privately held space venture, Blue Origin. Two other space-minded billionaires, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, come in for some ink and some screen time as well.
The Billionaire Space Club is no card party: All four of the top players have suffered setbacks. Branson’s Virgin Galactic has felt the most serious blows, in the form of accidents that killed three workers on the ground in 2007 and a co-pilot during a flight test in 2014.
The other players haven’t had to deal with death. Not yet. But Blue Origin’s uncrewed test program faced failures in 2011 and 2015. SpaceX had high-profile rocket blowups in 2015 and 2016, and its early Falcon 1 launch program got off to such a rough start that Musk flirted with bankruptcy in 2008.
Allen’s Stratolaunch program hasn’t yet gotten to the flight-test stage, despite nearly seven years of work, but the close calls that the billionaire saw during the SpaceShipOne rocket plane’s flights in 2003 and 2004 were rough enough to give him a sense of relief when Branson paid him millions for the rights to SpaceShipTwo.
Davenport’s interview with Allen for the book produced a genuine scoop: word that Stratolaunch is considering the development of a space shuttle code-named “Black Ice” to carry satellites and eventually people. But all three works pass along shiny nuggets about the origins and evolution of the billionaires’ space dreams:
- Branson says Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev offered to send him up on a Soyuz craft as the first civilian in space in the ’80s. “For a number of reasons, I said no — in part when I found out how much it was going to cost — and I’ve always regretted that,” Branson said. The price tag was said to be around $50 million, which is just a fraction of what Branson has spent on Virgin Galactic over the past 14 years.
- The impetus for starting up Blue Origin came from a conversation that Bezos had with Seattle science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson after they watched a matinee screening of “October Sky” in 1999. Stephenson was the first employee, and the venture looked at a range of unconventional launch technologies — including rail guns, laser beams and gigantic bullwhips — before concluding that chemical rockets were the way to go. Stephenson ended up using the bullwhip idea in his novel “Seveneves.”
- Bezos started Blue Origin two years before Musk started SpaceX, but kept the venture so secret that Musk sought out the Amazon billionaire in the 2004 time frame to learn more about what he was doing. Musk said he tried to point out engineering pitfalls for Bezos to avoid. “I actually did my best to give good advice, which he largely ignored,” Musk said later. In the years that followed, the two companies would clash over launch-pad lease opportunities, landing-pad patents and more.
Thanks to persistence as well as pecuniary power and good lawyers, all four billionaires are keeping their space ventures moving forward — something that mere millionaires aren’t always able to do.
You’ll find little in either “The Space Barons” or “Rocket Billionaires” about space efforts such as XCOR Aerospace, MirCorp or Armadillo Aerospace — which once had dreams as big as Blue Origin but have gone dormant or extinct. The fact that “Billionaire Space Club” spends a fair amount of time on now-bankrupt XCOR illustrates how quickly the spaceflight industry can change in the course of a year.
Even Planetary Resources, the Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining venture that’s backed by billionaires including Google co-founder Larry Page, has been having trouble raising funds lately.
Which gets back to the original point: Space is super-frickin’ damn hard, not just because of the engineering challenges and the life-and-death risks, but also because of the cost. And that’s nothing new: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers” is a phrase that supposedly dates back to the Mercury space effort, more than 50 years ago.
The latest waves of books and TV shows demonstrate, once again, that the spaceflight industry isn’t fueled so much by liquid hydrogen, RP-1 kerosene or methane as it is by money.
“Billionaire Space Club” premieres tonight on the Smithsonian Channel, with repeat showings scheduled later in the week. Check local listings for times.
The Washington Post’s Christian Davenport will be talking about “The Space Barons” at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on April 25. The event will be presented in partnership with Town Hall Inside Out, with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle as moderator. Tickets are available via Town Hall Seattle’s website.