In February this year, to much fanfare, Elon Musk propelled a car made by his company Tesla towards Mars. The Falcon Heavy made by his other company, SpaceX, is the world’s most powerful rocket, with three boosters and a capsule that, for this trip, contained the Tesla car but may in time transport astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.
A few weeks later, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch prototype emerged from its hangar to trundle along a Californian runway. It is the largest plane ever built, with 6 jumbo jet engines, 28 wheels and a 117-metre wingspan. Its job will be to transport rockets around 10,000 metres up, at which point they will be released to continue their journeys into space. Should it be successfully launched, Allen’s plane will take the record for largest wingspan of any aircraft that has ever flown, beating Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, which flew once, in 1947, for less than a minute.
In The Space Barons, Christian Davenport, a writer for the Washington Post, takes us to a new entrepreneurial frontier: the private space industry. It was easy to dismiss the Spruce Goose as an eccentric billionaire’s hobby. Musk’s Tesla stunt points to something more ambitious. In addition to Allen and Musk, Davenport’s cast includes Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, with a walk-on part for poker-playing plutocrat Andy Beal. With the withering of NASA’s ambitions in the 21st century, these are the heroes who will define the future of space exploration. The book is written in the airport-friendly popular-business style of Tom Friedman, replete with mixed metaphors (‘The hare was letting it hang out for everyone to see, writing the script live and in public … But it had guts’) and Shatner-esque sentence stubs.
The characters are very rich and very male, with astronomical ambitions. The potted biographies in this book suggest that, as well as looking up to space, these men are also looking back to a more heroic age, in which men went to the Moon. At one point, as befits a man unconstrained by resources, Bezos decides that he must scour the ocean for one of the dozens of booster engines thrown from Saturn V rockets, which were far more powerful than those used today, during the Apollo years. More than four kilometres down, he finds the very engine from the centre of the Apollo 11 rocket that took Neil Armstrong et al to the Moon.
The trouble is that this new space race is just not as interesting as the first one. We were once sold a story of exploration. Exploitation is a poor sequel. Musk and co are all talking about building bases on Mars (SpaceX sells an ‘Occupy Mars’ T-shirt, a pretty brazen appropriation by the 1 per cent of a once-radical slogan), but the private space industry is basically Space FedEx, making its money taking satellites into orbit and bits and pieces to the International Space Station.
This is big business. It is not The Right Stuff. Tom Wolfe said that his 1979 book was about what ‘makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle’. It concentrated on the people inside the rockets, even though the astronauts were derided by their test pilot predecessors as ‘Spam in a can’ because they weren’t really in control of their vessels. The private space industry runs robotic rockets. There is no real jeopardy. Davenport attempts to heroise his characters. But Bezos’s helicopter crash while out launch pad-hunting cannot compare to the fire that engulfed the Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967. Branson, an old-fashioned huckster who once claimed he would have tourists in space by 2007, brings the human interest element to the story, along with some tragedy. In 2014, the Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise broke up in flight, killing one pilot and injuring another.
Davenport attempts to turn his industry analysis into an adventure by writing in a baddie. Musk, Bezos, Branson and friends – a ‘merry band of rocketeers’ – are fighting against, you guessed it, Big Government. This is ingenuity against bureaucracy, entrepreneurial zeal against government bloat.
Except that this battle is actually a love-in. The billionaires are hopelessly nostalgic for a time when the military-industrial complex was all-powerful and NASA’s share of tax dollars was disgracefully large. Nobody has been to the Moon since 1972 and NASA even lost the ability to put astronauts into space when its expensive, unsafe space shuttle was retired in 2011. Since then, the USA has had to pay the Russians for a lift. These emasculations have clearly hurt the dreams of our billionaires. Their companies, notwithstanding speculative plans for space tourism, are entirely dependent on government contracts. (Incidentally, Hughes built the Spruce Goose under contract with the US government.)
Davenport’s determination to depict his characters as plucky upstarts (he calls a successful SpaceX launch the ‘triumph of the little guy’) rather than masters of the universe suggests that he has forgotten his own title. If these space barons are the 21st century’s robber barons, we should ask whether their power is being used for the public good. Davenport doesn’t want to mention, for example, that Beal, whose anti-government rants would be ridiculous in any industry, let alone one subsidised by government, has served as Donald Trump’s economic adviser. Rather than making heroes of these individuals, we should be asking who’s in control of space.