Review: The Space Barons Try to Save Humanity From Itself

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos
by Christian Davenport
Hardcover: 320 pages, illus.
Publisher: PublicAffairs (March 20, 2018)
ISBN-10: 1610398297

On the final day of the International Space Development Conference in May, I attended a fascinating session titled, “Space Entrepreneur ‘War Stories.’” It was a rather sobering hour of panelists recounting how various commercial ventures they had been involved in over the years had crashed and burned.

The common thread that ran through many of the stories was this: commercial space follows a boom-and-bust cycle where a long period of economic growth see space geeks who had made fortunes in other industries pour their money into various cosmic ventures. Two prominent examples include BlastOff!, a commercial venture to land a rover on the moon, and MirCorp, an effort to commercialize the Russian space station Mir.

Even in space, what goes up must come down. When the economy inevitably crashed, the companies collapsed and many of the projects were exposed for what they were: the indulgences of rich guys that had questionable returns on investment. BlastOff!, in particular, was a cool idea in perpetual search of a business case that would close.

The war stories were a perfect antidote to the four-day long preaching-to-the-choir space lovefest that is the annual NSS gathering. They also drove something a foreign visitor had told me several months earlier: there was no real commercial space activity in the United States. We’ve got another set of billionaires indulging their space passions, often with substantial financial support from various governments.

And that brings us to Christian Davenport’s entertaining, informative and incomplete new book, “Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.” In addition to the two barons mentioned in the title, the book also covers: Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company; Paul Allen of SpaceShipOne and Stratolaunch fame; and Andrew Beal of Beal Aerospace.

As the title suggests, much of the book focuses on Bezos and Musk. Their struggles are fascinating and their battles with each other – whether over leasing NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39A or who should get credit for landing the first booster back on Earth – are enlightening and entertaining.

The author, who is a reporter at the Bezos-owned Washington Post, is a good storyteller. He opens the book with an account of a terrifying helicopter crash that occurred as Bezos was scouting out a location for his rocket test site in West Texas. The Amazon billionaire and his three companions were lucky to escape with their lives in what Bezos said would have been “a silly way to die.”

An account of SpaceX’s effort to fix a Dragon supply ship with a stuck valve is also compelling. As NASA brass – deputy administrator Lori Garver, human spaceflight head Bill Gerstenmaier and space station manager Mike Sufferdini — looked on, engineers rewrote software on the fly and uploaded a patch that opened the valve and saved the mission.

The story is well told, showing SpaceX’s flexibility and representing a kind of a passing of the torch. However, the author overplays the drama a bit. A failure would certainly have brought criticism of NASA’s decision to outsource supply runs to the private sector.

However, it would hardly have derailed the program. NASA accepted greater risks in the cargo program, and it fully expecting to lose a resupply ship or two along the way. That’s exactly what happened as first Orbital Sciences and then SpaceX experienced launch failures. Both companies solved their problems and soldiered on with deliveries.

The author does a good job highlighting the contrasting rationales Musk and Bezos have for why we should move off the planet. Musk’s view is apocalyptic; he believes that sooner or later, Earth will be wiped out in some cataclysm. Cold, desolate Mars is the ultimate backup planet for humanity.

Bezos believes the human race will stagnate if it is confined to an Earth with a growing population but limited resources. His vision of millions of people living and working in space while Earth becomes a cleaner and nicer place to live is straight out of Gerard K. O’Neill’s “The High Frontier.” O’Neill was a professor at Bezos’ alma mater, Princeton University.

For all their messianic zeal to save humanity from itself, Bezos’ and Musk’s relationships with the actual humans that have helped built their colossal fortunes is a troubling aspect of the story that Davenport largely avoids.

Musk’s companies have been accused of or sued over unsafe working conditions, unpaid wages, labor law violations, and refusing to classify workplace injuries as such to avoid disability payments. SpaceX and Tesla have high burnout and turnover rates where people get used up and discarded.

Similar workplace complaints have been leveled against conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers; one report says low-paid workers pee in bottles rather than take bathroom breaks out of fear of getting demerits or fired.

It’s almost as if Musk and Bezos bring the 19th century sensibilities of the old robber barons regarding employees to their 21st century endeavors. This would have been a fascinating comparison to explore. Is this really needed? Will they bring the same mentality to space settlement? What would it be like to actually live in a space colony created by these space barons?

Davenport doesn’t spend any time contemplating these issues. None of it fits into the narrative of these modern-day heroes pushing back the final frontier. There’s also a tricky line to walk because he works for one of them. If he wasn’t going to be real tough on Bezos, it wouldn’t be fair to go after the rest of them.

Allen is the only one of the barons profiled with any experience with flying people into space. He funded Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately-funded, crewed vehicle to fly above 100 km twice within two weeks. All tolled, two pilots made three flights above the Karman line.

That was enough for the software mogul. Allen was so unnerved by a number of close calls during SpaceShipOne’s flights that he nixed a plan by Rutan to continue flying the vehicle. Better to have the historic spacecraft hanging in the National Air and Space Museum, which was eager to obtain it, than scattered in thousands of pieces over dozens of square miles of California’s High Desert.

Allen licensed to the technology to Richard Branson and departed the space scene until it was time to unveil an even larger air launch system named Stratolaunch seven years later. In the meantime, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites set about building the larger SpaceShipTwo for the British billionaire’s Virgin Galactic.

And so began a saga of delays, broken promises, fatal accidents, and four deaths that has now stretched nearly 14 years without a single spaceflight. SpaceShipTwo is a cautionary tale for Musk and Bezos as they move toward crewed flights, a warning to anyone who thinks space travel can be accomplished easily and cheaply, and an example of the old adage of beware what you wish for because you may get it. In short, it’s a case study in how not run a commercial human spaceflight program.

Unfortunately, Davenport isn’t particularly interested in exploring many of these lessons; his treatment of the SpaceShipTwo saga is relatively shallow.  The author fails to fully explain why SpaceShipTwo has been so troubled, downplays the first — and worst — tragedy in the program’s history, and lets Virgin Galactic and the FAA off the hook for their poor oversight.

Finally, he relies far too much on Branson, whose hype-filled statements have been as self serving as they have been unreliable. Very little of what he’s said in 14 years has been accurate.

Davenport devotes all of three paragraphs to the 2007 test stand explosion that killed three Scaled Composites engineers and landed three others in the hospital. The tragedy is mentioned almost as an aside in a section about the crash of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise in October 2014 that killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

The short passage ends with an inaccurate quote from Branson saying development was brought in house after the test stand explosion. The reverse is true; SpaceDev, which had helped develop the hybrid motor for SpaceShipOne, to assist with the engine work. Virgin didn’t bring everything in house until after the 2014 crash.

The test stand explosion and the crash were not random, disconnected tragedies. They were part of a continuum; you can’t understand one without the other. Both were a result of arrogance, overconfidence, flawed safety cultures, a failure of due diligence, and weak oversight by parties that were negligent in their duties.

The deaths in 2007 would have been avoided if Scaled Composites had taken the time to understand the risk associated with the oxidizer it was using (nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant that can explode under certain conditions). The company merely had to clear the test stand of personnel — standard procedure in the rocket business — to avoid killing anyone. It didn’t, and three men died.

Alsbury might well be alive today had Scaled evaluated the risks of pilot error and Virgin Galactic and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) performed proper oversight. FAA AST granted an experimental permit for powered flights to Scaled even though the application didn’t meet requirements in several key areas, including the risk of pilot error.

When the permit came up for renewal a year later in 2013, FAA AST management overrule its own safety experts who argued that the original application had been deficient. Bowing to political and schedule pressure, FAA AST renewed the permit and issued a waiver covering pilot error. Fifteen months after the waiver, SpaceShipTwo crashed due to pilot error.

In neither of the two fatal accidents did Virgin Galactic provide any effective oversight of Scaled. In 2007, Virgin Galactic was largely a marketing and sales operation with no real technical expertise. By the time of the crash, Virgin had sufficient expertise but not the will.

While Branson and company officials insisting that they were taking every safety precaution, they didn’t require that Scaled address the issue of pilot error. Running short on funds and facing a major investor frustrated with delays, the company pushed Scaled to complete the flight test program in as few flights as possible so that commercial service could begin. It didn’t want the schedule delays that would have occurred had FAA AST not renewed the permit.

Davenport makes no mention of the failed oversight by the FAA and Virgin Galactic.  These facts don’t quite fit the narrative of heroic billionaires exploring the final frontier. Branson’s decision to continue with the program after the loss of Enterprise is portrayed in heroic terms of overcoming the inevitable deaths that come with testing new flying machines.

Fortunately, the Virgin Galactic story makes up a relatively small portion of the book. Most of the narrative is fine, making the book well worth reading. It is a good overview for those unfamiliar with the on-going commercial space race. And those in the know will still learn some new things.