How a Visionary Band
of Business Leaders,
Engineers, and Pilots Is
Boldly Privatizing Space
By Michael Belfiore
Smithsonian Books; 305pp; $26.95
The Good A look at the fascinating characters behind the new, privately-run space race.
The Bad Could have used more in-depth reporting.
The Bottom Line A worthwhile overview of the budding business of space travel.
Like many other boys, Peter H. Diamandis dreamed of becoming an astronaut. But after talking to a real one while in graduate school, Diamandis decided against politicking his way through NASA's bureaucracy on the slim chance that he might be assigned a once-in-a-decade routine flight. Instead, he took inspiration from the $25,000 prize that had spurred Charles Lindbergh to make the first nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic, in 1927. After winning backing from well-heeled space enthusiasts and Lindbergh family members, Diamandis in May, 1996, announced the X Prize, a competition to send the first humans out of Earth's atmosphere in a privately built craft. A new space race was born.
It is this fascinating movement that journalist Michael Belfiore, a frequent contributor to Popular Science, chronicles in Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space. These entrepreneurs are a colorful crew. There's John Carmack, creator of the violent Doom series of video games, whose Armadillo Aerospace Co. launches rockets in the Texas desert. And Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real estate developer who hopes to create a hotel in space modeled on his own Budget Suites of America. Belfiore's book provides a worthwhile overview for readers who want to learn more about these characters and the space-tourism market they are promoting.
The star of the show is Burt Rutan, a cantankerous, mutton-chop-wearing aircraft designer. As a civilian engineer in the 1960s, Rutan had worked for the Air Force designing fighter planes. In the 1970s he founded a company that sold plans for hobbyists to build their own aircraft. In 1986, Rutan's older brother, Dick, and co-pilot Jeana Yeager—no relation to legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager—set a distance record for their nonstop, nonrefueling, nine-day flight around the world in the Voyager, an airplane Burt had designed.
In 2004, Rutan's SpaceShipOne completed the two required 60-mile-high trips with a human pilot, snagging him the $10 million award that had been renamed the Ansari X Prize after a family of well-to-do sponsors. The craft is now on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, not far from Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Today, he is designing the high-powered planes for entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which aims to become the world's first "spaceline" when it begins sending passengers on 2 1/2 -hour space hops in 2009. Virgin claims that 45,000 brave folks have expressed interest, and 200 have plunked down the $200,000 fee.
Belfiore also chronicles the battle between New Mexico and California to establish the nation's first Cape Canaveral for private space travel. New Mexico won, thanks to heaps of state funding. The $200 million Spaceport America is under construction about 200 miles south of Albuquerque, allowing local economic-development officials to use the corporate recruiting slogan "New Mexico. We've got space."
The love-hate relationship that the rocketeers have with their federal kin is evident. After their craft's first flight, in June, 2004, Rutan and astronaut Michael Melvill gleefully appeared before TV news cameras waving a sign that read "SpaceShipOne. Government zero." Even so, in the wake of Rutan's success, NASA has been channeling more of its $17 billion annual budget to small companies as a way of achieving goals that now include continued development of the shuttle program, the International Space Station, and the exploration of Mars.
One jarring note: Belfiore has an unfortunate habit of injecting himself into the narrative. For example, he tells how President George W. Bush in January, 2004, called for another lunar-landing program, justifying it as a way of keeping kids interested in science and developing new technologies for commercial use, "none of which struck me as terribly convincing," the author comments. Bush's new moon shot may simply be a boondoggle for contractors, but why not let some outside, more authoritative voice say that?
Moreover, readers would have been better served if Belfiore had spent more time with some of these space entrepreneurs and taken us behind the scenes of their budding businesses. Diamandis is promoting the Rocket Racing League, in which a new breed of space cowboys in rocket-powered aircraft will compete before fans. He's also chief executive of Zero Gravity Corp., a Fort Lauderdale outfit that gives would-be space tourists an hour of weightlessness aboard a modified Boeing 727 for a mere $3,600 per passenger. Today, weekend space trips no longer seem like science fiction.
By Christopher Palmeri