Review: Rocket Billionaires Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos Battle for Control of Space

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race
by Tim Fernholz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-328-66223-1

In 2004, a small vehicle named SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen flew three suborbital flights, becoming the first privately-built crewed craft to exit the Earth’s atmosphere. For their efforts, Rutan and Allen won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Rutan quickly teamed with another billionaire, Richard Branson, to build a successor vehicle named SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic that would carry two pilots and six passengers on commercial suborbital flights as early as 2007. It didn’t quite work out as planned; 14 years later, SpaceShipTwo hasn’t flown anyone to space.

While Rutan, Allen and Branson were grabbing all the headlines back in 2004, two other wealthy moguls were quietly working on their own space companies. These two billionaires are the principle subjects of Tim Fernholz’s informative new book, “Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race.”

Fernholz’s book is an entertaining account of the dual paths taken by Bezos’ Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX. He draws good portraits of two very different personalities, the divergent approaches each mogul has taken, and the battles between them to win the new space race.

The book also does a generally good job of Musk’s efforts to break the monopoly on U.S. government launches held by United Launch Alliance. To say something is disruptive is a bit of a Silicon Valley cliché; however, SpaceX’s efforts are a case study in upsetting the market not only in the United States but around the world.

Branson and Virgin Galactic have only a supporting role in Fenholz’s story. The author does spotlight something most writers miss about Virgin Galactic: the limitations inherent in the technology that SpacShipTwo is based upon.

SpaceShipOne was a fragile, experimental spacecraft that was purpose built to win the Ansari X Prize. As a stunt to prove that a small team could get to space on a limited budget, it was a spectacular success. But, engineers had a hard time scaling up the engine for the larger SpaceShipTwo. And the technology doesn’t scale to orbit or for point-to-point supersonic flight.

“It was a brilliant design for what [Burt] Rutan was trying to do, and it’s not that traceable to future things other than potentially a suborbital ride,” former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin tells the author.

Overall, the book is well worth reading. It lays out the history of this new space age for those unfamiliar with it. And those who have followed these developments closely will learn some new things.