222019Dec

The Space Barons

Space Barons by Christian Davenport

“The Space Barons:  Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos” by Christian Davenport.  PublicAffairs (imprint of Perseus Books) New York. Copyright 2018. 308 pages, $28 hardback, $14.99 Kindle.

Nineteenth century America was dominated by the “robber baron” captains of industry such as Rockefeller and Carnegie.  Twenty-first century America may well become the era of “space barons”, a cadre of rich, high-tech entrepreneurs who want to see a quick return to manned space exploration.  Among those figures are Elon Musk, who started SpaceX with $100 million of his own money and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos who once admitted to spending $2.5 billion of his own money on a single rocket on behalf of his aerospace company Blue Origin.

Other players include Richard Branson, the British business mogul who owns 400 companies under the “Virgin” logo including suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who aspires to build a space plane to fling rockets into orbit via his company Stratolaunch.

“Space Barons” is largely the story of the first years of operation of both Blue Origin and SpaceEx, start-up aerospace businesses that author Christian Davenport likens to “the tortoise and the hare” respectively.  Blue Origin began very slowly and secretively in obscurity in West Texas with an incremental and cautious approach from Jeff Bezos, and with very little media exposure.  By contrast, Elon Musk, the oftentimes vocal internet entrepreneur, grew SpaceX very quickly starting in 2002 with constant social media attention and high-profile lawsuits against the US government. 

In 2014, Elon Musk sued the federal government alleging that the United Launch Alliance (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) had enjoyed a decade of monopoly on military rocket launch contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars and that they were trying to shut out small “ankle-biter” providers who were more nimble administratively and more cost-conscious than large legacy aerospace behemoths.  Musk’s comment to the press was, “Suing the military industrial complex is something that you do not take lightly”.

Davenport concludes that there is no motivation like competition and that the rivalry among new US-based aerospace companies has been a solid win in terms of efficiency, responsiveness, and problem-solving.  In particular, it has served to make NASA pay more attention to how they award large contracts and has put pressure on the government to be more audacious than just using the now defunct Space Shuttle to supply the International Space Station—a mission that had been repeated to the point of becoming routine and boring.  Not since the Sputnik space race with Russia of the late 1950s has there been such pressure to produce launch results quickly and with a minimum of bureaucratic inertia.

“Space Barons” delivers as a peon to the visionary dreams of two very different billionaires whose imaginations were piqued by space flight in early childhood.  Davenport, a financial reporter for the Washington Post, showcases his defense industry knowledge, but produces an episodic work that would have benefited from more rigorous editing and fewer digressions in time and “space”.

Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library.  She can be reached at lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org or (336) 229-3588.