Author Christian Davenport is a staff writer at the Washington Post covering the space and defense industries. As a frequent radio and television commentator, he has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, PBS NewsHour, and several NPR shows, including All Things Considered and Diane Rehm. The extreme challenge of space travel is the theme of Davenport’s new book, “The
Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.” (Space Barons) His book documents the emergence of a commercial space industry in the past 15 years, from the first flight of SpaceShipOne to the prospect of Earth orbit as a venue for tourism/recreation.
The United States no longer has a manned space program, and the government has not shown any immediate plans to fund another. A quartet of billionaires has stepped in to fill the void. The Space Barons is the story of a group of billionaire entrepreneurs who are putting their fortunes into the resurrection of the American space program. Comprised of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Paul Allen, Space Barons discusses the billionaires using innovation to lower the cost of space travel, and send humans further than NASA has gone. They have birthed a new Space Age aiming for the moon, Mars and beyond. “If NASA, or Congress, or any president wouldn’t stand up as John F. Kennedy did in 1961 when he promised to send a man to the moon within a decade, then this class of entrepreneurs would attempt it.” Space Barons captures this historic quest to rekindle the human exploration and the colonization of space led by billionaires and their vast fortunes, egos, and visions of space as the next entrepreneurial frontier. These entrepreneurs have founded some of the biggest brands in the world Amazon, Microsoft, Virgin, Tesla, PayPal-and upended industry after industry. Now they are pursuing the biggest disruption of all: space. The book focuses on the billionaire’s biggest projects including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, with an emphasis on their eccentric leaders. There is a lot of information about Paul Allen, who bankrolled SpaceShipOne, the first private vehicle to reach space. Davenport had access to all four people, as well as some of their inner circles. He dramatically displays his reporting and storytelling skills.
The narrative is drenched in testosterone. Women make up 1 in 3 professional scientists and 1 in 5 professional engineers, but there are few women to be found in the pages of Space Barons. Space entrepreneurs form a small priesthood where obsession squeezes out any semblance of work-life balance. The book also has some interesting stories beyond the billionaires, such as Beal Aerospace, one of the first serious commercial rocket companies. There’s a recap of Bezos’s quest to recover Apollo 11’s F-1 engines from the ocean, and a side trip to a 1920 New York Times editorial scolding Robert Goddard for believing a rocket engine would work in a vacuum. As Bezos pointed out, “My friends who say they want to move to Mars one day, I say: Why don’t you go live in Antarctica for a year first because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.” The book provides few personal details about Bezos or Musk, but that’s partly because men this driven don’t have the time for pleasures of social or family life.