The Space Barons by Christian Davenport

36205015Nonfiction – print. Public Affairs, 2018. 320 pgs. Library copy.

I work on the periphery of the aerospace industry, relying on the industry to build and launch optical satellites whose imagery I can process in support of environmental monitoring and natural disaster response. Despite this proximity, my knowledge about the aerospace industry is limited to the photographs NASA shares on Instagram. Which is why I was intrigued when I saw Davenport’s book on display at my local library.

Subtitled “Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos”, Davenport focuses on the efforts of four billionaires – Paul Allen and Richard Branson plus Musk and Bezos – to commercialize space travel. As the book recounts, each “baron” has a particular reason why he wants to travel to space:

  • Musk wants his company, SpaceX, colonize Mars as a back-up plan following the destruction of Earth;
  • Bezos wants to set up the infrastructure needed to facilitate space travel, seeing Blue Origin as fulfilling the role the US Postal Service plays for Amazon;
  • Branson wants to make space travel as ubiquitous as flying across the Atlantic with Virgin Galactic;
  • Allen wants to use space as an observation tower for affecting change on Earth with satellites, for example, monitoring illegal and hazardous fishing operations around the world.

The book examines how each man featured funneled his billions into their respective business ventures, the success and failures of those ventures, and the entrenched barriers these start-up ventures must overcome. In telling these stories, Davenport plays off of two parables: the tortoise and the hare and David and Goliath.

The Goliath of the space industry is the revolving door between the Pentagon, NASA, and the dominate industry players, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Musk sued the Department of Defense and NASA several times over no bid contracts, setting him up to be the hero of the story. (To the book’s detriment, Musk’s abusive behavior in the workplace is glossed over as being a symptom of his genius.)

Yet, as Davenport documents, Musk’ role as the hare versus Bezos’ tortoise turns SpaceX into the Goliath. The narrative shifts as more information about Bezos’ work is available – Blue Origin is notoriously secretive – and the book’s effusive praise for Musk starts to balance out.

At this point, more information about Allen and Branson’s efforts are also included in the book, although neither story is ever fully interwoven into Davenport’s tortoise-hare and David-Goliath structure. It makes for a clunky narrative; more Sunday feature than cohesive book.

This is also the point where Davenport breaks the fourth wall, inserting himself into the narrative in to address the fact that, as a reporter for the Washington Post, one of Davenport’s features is also his boss. It’s difficult to tell if the lighter touch taken to Bezos is due to this dynamic or because Blue Origin and Bezos are just that secretive, but I appreciate his lengthy efforts to at least address the conflict.

Still, despite the clunky narrative, Davenport’s book offered this commercial space novice quite the education. It’s a great overview, and Davenport’s tradecraft as a journalist is evident as he offers enough technical detail to be interesting but not overwhelming. I’m curious to learn more about Bezos and Musk’s plans for space, even if so far that curiosity has only extended to following SpaceX and Blue Origin on Twitter.

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