Flashing his gigawatt smile, Richard Branson safely emerged from his spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo, in July after it touched down in New Mexico at the end of its first fully crewed flight. The champagne-chugging began. Only nine days later, Jeff Bezos followed him to the edge of space, riding Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle. These two successful flights have ushered in the age of spacefaring billionaires. Elon Musk has also booked a seat with Branson’s Virgin Galactic. They promise to open space to tourists – those who can pony up $250,000, at least.
Commercialising space travel is exciting and troubling. It must be hard to beat the thrill of looking at the world while floating above it, but who will get to enjoy it? Branson has tried to portray the final frontier as accessible to all, not just elites. Virgin wants to begin commercial spaceflights next year, aiming for four hundred annually. Whether it can turn its six hundred bookings into a sustainable business is a major unknown. But Branson is nothing if not a showman, promotion made flesh, and he has overcome numerous challenges in his many ventures, even if few of them match the ambitiousness of the Virgin Galactic enterprise.
Nicholas Schmidle’s Test Gods is an attempt to pull back the curtain on the Virgin Galactic extravaganza and understand how the company came out ahead in the space race. The technology is one part. Instead of blasting off like a rocket, SpaceShipTwo adopts a relatively simple approach, the same