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Peter Diamandis’s Excellent Adventure

Journalist Julian Guthrie tells the story of the Ansari XPrize and of SpaceShipOne’s historic flights.

How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight

by Julian Guthrie, Penguin, 2016

Stephen Hawking believes we humans won’t survive another thousand years unless we colonize space. And if we do colonize space, people will probably erect statues of Peter Diamandis in town squares across the universe. At least that’s the impression that ex–San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie gives in How to Make a Spaceship (Penguin, 2016).

In Spaceship, Guthrie tells the story of the Ansari XPrize and of SpaceShipOne — the privately developed, piloted craft that, in 2004, won the US$10 million competition by flying into space and back twice within two weeks. Although it was an inspirational feat, the book is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a terrific yarn, to be sure. But it’s also an overly detailed biography of Diamandis that verges on hagiography and a missed opportunity to explore how new industries emerge from the intersection of government and the private sector.

Diamandis was 8 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969. Like millions of American kids of similar age, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Unlike almost all those other kids, he never outgrew the dream — even as he attended Harvard Medical School, where he graduated only after promising the school’s dean never to actually practice medicine.

Instead, Diamandis became a serial entrepreneur in the space business. Among the numerous ventures he cofounded and led from the late 1980s to the 2000s were International Microspace, which provided low-cost satellite launch services; Zero Gravity, which offered well-to-do thrill-seekers parabolic “weightlessness” flights in a Boeing jet; and BlastOff, which aimed to fly a mission to the moon. The business results of his ventures were mixed at best: Zero Gravity is the only one of these three still operating independently. But in zooming from one business to another, Diamandis got the idea to jumpstart a private-sector space race with a prize — a competition modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize that prompted Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Diamandis announced the Ansari XPrize in 1996, but it took him six more years to raise the $10 million purse. A slew of big companies, from Enterprise Rent-A-Car to Red Bull, passed on the sponsorship opportunity. So did several entrepreneurs who are now big players in the private space industry. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos liked the idea, but didn’t write a check. (He ultimately built his own rocket launch company, Blue Origin.) Neither did Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic now styles itself as the world’s first commercial spaceline: “Dr. Yes, as he was known, had said no,” writes Guthrie. For his part, Elon Musk, who would go on to found SpaceX, was more interested in Mars. Eventually, Diamandis raised half the money from an affinity credit card deal with First USA bank. He secured the other half by buying an insurance policy that required the issuing company to pay the prize should anyone actually win it. The policy came with a steep premium: $50,000 per month plus a one-time payment of $1.3 million.

Guthrie devotes about half of Spaceship to Diamandis. But the book doesn’t really take flight until she gives aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his colleagues at Scaled Composites the lead. This crew, which eventually designed and fabricated the prize-winning SpaceShipOne, is no white-shirted, pocket-protected team of scientists. “They’re a bunch of motorcycle mechanics in the [Mojave] desert building a spaceship,” thinks Dave Moore, the overseer appointed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who bankrolled Rutan’s effort to the tune of about $25 million. To put this number in context, remember that NASA’s shuttle fights cost about $1 billion each.

As you might expect given the budget, the conception and construction of SpaceShipOne, which is now enshrined in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, was a case study in jugaad (or low-cost, improvised) innovation. A scrapyard in Texas provided the mobile nitrous oxide tank needed to fuel SpaceShipOne; standard aviation body putty — tinted with red dye and herbs from a supermarket — was used as thermal protection. Rutan even toyed with the idea of strapping Sidewinder missiles onto the craft to provide the oomph necessary to drive it above the 100-kilometer-high Karman line, which marks the beginning of outer space.

“SpaceShipOne, which is now enshrined in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, was a case study in jugaad innovation.”

Guthrie’s recounting of the flights of SpaceShipOne, the climactic peak of the book, rivals Tom Wolfe’s reportage in The Right Stuff. Here, the author’s access and prodigious research pay off in a pilot’s-eye view of the historic flights. And what a view it is: On September 24, 2004, SpaceShipOne was released from the belly of a specially constructed jet at 43,500 feet, accelerated upward at 2,000 miles per hour, and then glided down to a controlled ground landing — at three times the speed of sound and five times the force of gravity. And then it did it again, on October 4.

The only thing missing in Spaceship is perspective. Throughout the book, characters complain that NASA — and by extension, the U.S. government — is “monopolizing” space and holding back commercial development. But without NASA’s decades of investment, success, and failure, there would be no space industry. Diamandis would probably be delivering babies in Westchester County. And when he tells Lindbergh’s grandson, “The government is not going to get us there. It is not in the business of taking risks,” it reads as a grave insult to the NASA astronauts who died paving the way for his ventures.

Worse, it aligns with the simplistic “end big government; free the entrepreneur” storyline that too frequently emanates from Silicon Valley. Without government investment in research and bureaucracy, crucial developments such as the transistor, satellites, the Internet, and space travel would not have developed as they did. In an unfortunate turn for this highly readable book, its author doesn’t recognize that without government efforts and investment, she wouldn’t have a tale to tell.

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Peter Diamandis’s Excellent Adventure