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.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    All true, yet in the face of it Japan wiped out Detroit and along with Europe shut down our steel pants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. And in spite of those prison factories and massive Chinese debt American manufacturers have flocked to China in order to produce their goods. So much so that the American industrial sector has gone from being 20% military to 50% military because so much of the civilian sector has left. Actually, I’d argue an imprisoned work force and that massive debt is what attracted American business to China. That’s WHY they went there. But you know what, after the Chinese collapse if it finally comes, they’ll still own the tools and have the workforce who knows how to operate them. The American private sector since Regan opened the gates to China have slowly stopped investing in the American work force. If China collapsed tomorrow, they’d take us with them because we lack the tools and trained work force to operate them.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The key factor that enable China to attract U.S. firms was their high tariffs. Their tariff on automobiles for example is 25%, compared to only 2.5% for the U.S..

    https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/8/17097158/elon-musk-tesla-trump-china-tariffs-trade-twitter

    The Tesla CEO says high tariffs on
    cars imported to China, as well as manufacturing rules there, have made
    things ‘very difficult’ for the company

    “To get around the 25 percent import tariff, though, the company has
    explored setting up a factory. While other major car makers like GM have
    acquiesced to China’s manufacturing rules, Tesla has resisted partnering
    with local car makers, and has been pushing the government there for an
    exemption. The government reportedly won’t budge, and so the two sides are at an impasse.”

    Increasing U.S. Tariffs to match theirs was something that needed to be done decades ago. Also I think you sell American workers short in believing they couldn’t be trained to operate the equipment if the jobs returned here.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Looks like the liberals are building a foundation to fight humanity’s expansion into space on the grounds that somehow it is racist… You got to wonder how they think up this stuff.

    https://theoutline.com/post/5809/the-racist-language-of-space-exploration?zd=2&zi=fxiicnid

    The racist language of space exploration

    The language of colonialism is infecting outer space, thanks to dominance by rich white businessmen and

    By Caroline Haskins
    Aug—14—2018 10:00AM EST

  • Larry J

    From what I’ve read, Paul Allen ordered the grounding of SpaceShipOne because its safety margins were way too small.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    That’s what attracts them NOW that China has a believable consumer market in the making. What attracted American manufacturers in the late 20th cen and early 21’st was government subsidy, and cheap exploitable labor. That’s when China was endowed with the power base it can use now to extract subservient behavior out of the likes of GM. China was not born powerful in 1949. It was American free enterprise who endowed them with the industrial might to become what they are.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    How does that explain the USSR’s ability to bypass a liner contest with the US on the bomber front and leapfrog to ICBM’s? You’re also ignoring some major leaps the USSR took that they were not able to take full advantage of. The T-64, Alpha class SSNs, the Yak-141 Freestyle (now the F-35), SS-23, Energya/Buran, those were all breakthrough systems. Again, you’re trying to place me into a camp that I’m not. I believe in a hybrid system, we need both. And again, China’s planned economy has wiped out American manufacturing more effectively than any strategic bombing campaign has ever done to anyone else. Their state planning economists convinced American free marketeers that it was a good idea to move to the planned economies of guaranteed predictable profits of China. And your free marketeers took bait. I’ll bet most American manufacturers could not do their businesses without Chinese help if their life deadpanned on it. Surely you understand how your statement above looks when placed against the overwhelming results of observations of the lab experiment as conducted in the real world?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Sure, and at that level the mixing of money is very effective. Both revenue streams are propping each other up. In similar arrangements here, the state funds keep the building in repair, pays the electricity and water, provides slave labor (students), keeps the paint fresh, and a ready source of spare hardware and computers left over from other funded projects. And in no way am I saying private funds come with an agenda. But they can. The Koch brothers being a perfect example of overt conclusion dictated research funding. Granted they don’t fund astronomy.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Leadership always goes bad when there are no governing forces upon the powerful. That’s why we need to govern each other, and why we need private centers of power and public centers of power to balance each other out.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Russia got the ICBMs from the Germans just like NASA got the Saturn V. The breakthrough was not with the liquid fuel ICBMs, but the Minuteman and Polaris, which took the Russians a while to duplicate. The Yak-141 was inspired by the Hummingbird VTOL NASA worked on in the 1960’s. And the Energya/Buran was an improved version of the Shuttle System, without making the mistake NASA did of putting the engines on the Orbiter.

    In terms of manufacturing, you might read Alvin Toffle’s “The Third Wave”. Manufacturing is part of the second wave and is not as important as it used to be to a nation’s economy. But as usual traditional economists are behind the curve on it as well as how they measure an economy’s productivity.

    Again, take some time to read the first two books I recommened. They cover these issues in depth.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, that is the tradition of the Frontier as Frederick Turner discusses in his work, the essential tension between the practical frontier folk and the coastal “gentry”. It was a tension that existed even in the early colonies in the late 17th Century and hasn’t changed much since.

  • Lee

    Ummm, at the places I was, the nsf funds weren’t “propping” anything up. The govt funds were nice to have, but we would have done the things we did even without them.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    “Russia got the ICBMs from the Germans just like NASA got the Saturn V”. Ummm, no. Totally different beasts. An ICBM has to have a lot of subsystems removed that are in the V2. Energya/Buran was a a much more in depth and complex system over Shuttle, and it showed starting with the test articles. As far as 3rd wave manufacturing goes … don’t confuse the musings of an educated theoretician with what’s happening in the real world. 3d printing has been in the manufacturing ecosystem for over 30 years and yet, somehow the people who do the real work still use sand casting and machine tools, and somehow they think it’s less expensive in a lot of cases. Don’t confuse theory with experimental result. Additionally, you’re missing my main point, the free market ensures the path to these technologies are level between a free market and any command economy that chooses to integrate itself into free markets. The command economy has access to the genius of the free market and all the capital and insulation from market forces that the command economy offers. Compound that with a free marketeers loyalty to paper money vs the command economies forced patriotism of the captive enterprises and guess who’s national interests get encoded in the economy? Again, free market societies lose because the command economy can capture/buy the interest set of the free market.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    NASA? DoD? DoE? The local state funds that maintain your Astronomy dept? There are far more sources of public dollars than the NSF. NSF took a huge cut years ago and pretty much only funds LSST in Astronomy, almost nobody sees big dollars from NSF anymore.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Still you see mostly a linear development for rockets. Yes, as you build it larger it needs more complex subsystems, but that is straight forward engineering.

    Alvin Toffle’s book “The Third Wave” was written in 1980 and doesn’t discussed 3D Printing but instead how economies of the future will be based on Information instead of manufacturing, and information based jobs will replace manufacturing based jobs as the key driver of the economy just as manufacturing jobs replaced agricultural jobs. The Three economic waves are.

    Wave 1 – The Agricultural based economy – 10,000 B.C. until 1750

    Wave 2 – The Industrial based economy – 1750 until 1957

    Wave 3 – The Information based economy – 1957 until ….

    He selected the year 1957 as that was the year that clerical and other information based employment in the U.S. exceed those employed in manufacturing.

    Note, he doesn’t say manufacturing will disappear or not continue to advance, merely it won’t be a major driver of jobs as it becomes more automated. The same thing happened in agricultural. We are producing more agriculture goods then ever before, but it only accounts for a small fraction of the workforce because of the advances in technology and automation in agriculture. A farmer with a computer operated GPS guided tractor is able to produce more food today that a 100 farmers did a 100 years ago.

    His predictions that information based firms will become more valuable than manufacturing firms like GM has become true if you look at the recent valuations of firms that serve those industries.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    “Still you see mostly a linear development for rockets”. Well, that’s what we have. We’re bound by two major constraints. Our propulsion techniques are predicated on conservation of momentum in the frames of reference we currently understand. We use chemical energy sources. What’s your point?

    You’re right, I did misunderstand what you meant by 3rd wave. but at this point the information economy is a joke. The useless carp that’s come out of silicon valley ap shops yes makes money, but IMO has detracted from civilization. I’ll use Lyft as an example, their founder based his idea on car owners in Zimbabwe who used their cars as a taxi. Their CEO is on record as trying to create an environment where car ownership is a rare thing. It’s an extractive business model. Remove the need for people to own cars, and extract that extra income people would normally use to keep, maintain, and drive a car. In other words take power and independence from the individual and cash in on their voluntary impoverishing of themselves. This business model is typical of the Ap economy. I won’t go into how they structure the employment model for their drivers. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what I think of the rest of the 3rd wave as it is now.

    And what’s to say, only Americans do this sort of thing? From what I read Chinese protectionism and forced technology transfer is serving them well even in the 3rd wave. Look at what the Chinese did with Uber. Now their taxi service is competing with Uber outside of China. The Chinese allowed Uber to establish itself so the Chinese could learn how to do it, kicked Uber out, took their clientèle in China and are now branching out. So again the command economy has free access to everything the free market can produce and rig the outcome so they come out on top. You keep ignoring this point, and I’ll keep driving it home.

  • Lee

    As I clearly said, at that time I was at PRIVATE institutions. We got NO state funds. The only fed funds we got were through grants. For the on campus astro facilities, while I was there in the 90s, we would have done all the things we did regardless of external funding. The observatory itself had a substantial endowment, but that was of course dwarfed by the college endowment.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And look at how much of the manufacturing era was spent producing toys and other trinkets and still is The key point is that the future jobs will be information based, not manufacturing base. Some will produce quality work of value to society, as your information economy job at the observatory does, others will just produce the information equivalent of the toys that used to be in Cracker Jack. But both are jobs that enable folks to earn a living,

    Actually Under is a poor example, first because it requires consumers to be were the service is being produced, so revenues in China are not going to dilute the numbers using it here and because all Uber is doing is replacing full time taxi drivers with part time taxi drivers. Second, because it will eventually replace those part time drivers with robots. But you will see a lot of the in the Information based economy as it matures, and its no different than in manufacturing. Once upon a time all cars being produced were painted by human workers. Now robots do it and a handful of humans just supervise.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It might have been. They are starting to put all those wonderful old magazines on DVD’s in digital format. I just bought the complete run of Astounding/Analog Science Fiction from 1930 to 1989 on three DVD sets for less than $40. 15 discs with ALL the old stories in their original form. I just found a lost gem in them, a 4 page review of Willy Ley’s classic book “Rockets” by Robert Heinlein in a 1943 issue 🙂

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Don’t forget “Space Cadet”, in 1947 Heinlien was educated in angular momentum harvesting in planetary swing by’s, aero-braking, register operations in a what would become called a CPU, what would become called assembly language, how computer memory is addressed, and computer modems would work, oh, and he has a somewhat viable method of digitally taking a spectra. It’s not a great book from a lit POV, but it’s spooky to hear a WWII vet right out of the war write about the rest of the 20th cen high tech when it was still in its infancy. He was really on top of things in his day. If I ever retire, the old sci-fi pulps are on the list.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And don’t forget the portable phones that the cadets called their parents on to tell them they had arrived at the academy. 🙂

    You might want to order them now, just do a search on eBay. These things have a way of disappearing after a while. They are the effort of one pulp fan and he may get tired of producing them after a while.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Ouch! forgot that! That reminds me of when I was showing my niece “Star Trek IV the Voyage Home”, and when Kirk is on a date in a pizzeria and whips out his communicator I had to explain to her how ‘sci-fi’ that was in 1986. She’s too young to have remembered the flip phone era. Talk about sci-fi coming true and become old forgotten history. I’d have loved to have served on a ship with Heinlein, he must have been a blast.