The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk going head-to-head to conquer space travel

Chris Impey is an Associate Dean of Science and a University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He has written eight popular science books, including the upcoming “Einstein’s Monsters: The Life and Times of Black Holes.”

Space is hard. A human can’t survive for more than a few seconds in the lung-busting, frigid vacuum of space. Several dozen astronauts have died trying to escape Earth’s gravity. Going to the moon was a spectacular achievement, but it was so difficult that nearly half a century has passed, and we haven’t been back.

The extreme challenge of space travel is the backdrop for Christian Davenport’s new book, “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.” Davenport is a staff writer at The Washington Post, where he covers the space and defense industries. 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 and recreation.

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“The Space Barons” opens in 2015, nearly 50 years after the beach-ball-size Sputnik launched the Space Age. We are introduced in turn to Bezos and Musk, the titans who aim to wrest space travel from the grip of government hegemony and open it up to entrepreneurs. They are a study in contrasts. Bezos is deliberative and secretive, the self-proclaimed tortoise, his motto translated from Latin as “Step by step, ferociously.” Musk is brash and impatient, the hare, his motto “Head down. Plow through the line.” Shadowing them is a third outsize character: Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, who is full of braggadocio yet disarmingly honest about his flaws. The motto that summarizes his ascent through the business world is “Screw it, let’s do it.”

Davenport displays his reporting and storytelling skills. His writing is tight and, suitably for the subject matter, propulsive. He fleshes out the main protagonists with fine character vignettes. Davenport has to finesse the fact that Amazon founder and CEO Bezos is his boss, as the owner of The Post, but he generally steers clear of hagiography. The book provides few personal details about Bezos or Musk, but that’s partly because men this driven don’t have the time for protean pleasures of social or family life. You’d love to hear them give a talk on their exploits but would probably be exhausted if you had to spend a weekend with them.

The story arc follows Bezos and Musk as they each use personal wealth to realize childhood dreams that are too large to be contained by the Earth.

Bezos starts by upending the world of books with his start-up Amazon, using the nascent Internet to challenge brick-and-mortar book chains like Barnes and Noble. Methodically, he broadens the scope of the company until it sells everything to anyone, everywhere. As Amazon becomes the largest Internet retailer in the world, Bezos continues to dream about space. He is disappointed that the success of Apollo was never followed up and is frustrated by the inertia and cost of the government-sponsored space program. He considers radical ideas to get into Earth orbit — bullwhips, lasers, cannons, railguns — but settles on a traditional chemical rocket, with the crucial innovation of reusing it, rather than discarding it into the ocean like a skyscraper-size piece of detritus. Amazon is a behemoth, and Bezos puts his heart and soul (and a cool $3 billion of his fortune) into his new venture, Blue Origin, one day a week. Wednesdays are for space.

Musk, meanwhile, is following a parallel path. Davenport includes a helpful timeline at the beginning of the book. Born in South Africa, with technical skills from his training in physics, Musk embraces the buccaneering culture of Silicon Valley. He pioneers getting newspapers online, and a few years later he invents the first online financial payment system. In successive years, he founds SpaceX with $100 million of his own money and joins the board of directors of the electric-car company Tesla. Even after he becomes the CEO of Tesla in 2008, he remains passionate about taking people into space and eventually to Mars.

Along the way, we meet other players in the race to space. Branson helps found a record label and an airline, and he reaches for the stratosphere with Virgin Galactic. Branson shares with Musk a showman’s bravado. He shares with Bezos the craving for physical risk and adventure.

Another figure in the tale is Andy Beal, a Las Vegas high-stakes poker player who makes his fortune in real estate and starts a space company in 1997, years before Bezos and Musk. He runs into a wall of opposition from established aerospace giants and quietly folds his hand. We also meet Burt Rutan, the visionary designer of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded airplane to reach the edge of space. In winning the Ansari X Prize in 2004, Rutan spurs the commercial space sector the way Charles Lindbergh spurred the era of civil aviation with his solo transatlantic flight in 1927. There’s a vig­nette of Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, who is Rutan’s banker until Allen hands the reins to Branson. And we encounter the test pilots who put their lives on the line to fly these untested and highly combustible vehicles.

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 “The Space Barons.” Space entrepreneurs form a small priesthood where obsession squeezes out any semblance of work-life balance.

The adversary in Davenport’s story is the military-industrial complex. Companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are locked into lucrative government contracts and have no motivation to innovate or cut costs. NASA has a graying workforce that has lost its appetite for risk. Two space shuttles have been lost in flight, killing 14 astronauts. Years tick by, and American astronauts cannot get into space without help from Russia. Stealthy and smooth, Bezos cozies up to the big aerospace companies to get into the game. True to type, Musk has the hubris to sue the government, even as he is trying to win its business. The aerospace titans initially see him as a nuisance, an “ankle biter,” but he persists and eventually wins multibillion-dollar contracts to ship supplies to the International Space Station. Singlehandedly, he cracks the cartel and nudges NASA into being more nimble.

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Eerily, the tortoise and the hare end up at the same place at the same time. Bezos buys a huge tract of snake-bit desert in Texas for launching his rockets. Not far away, Musk buys several hundred acres and eventually bumps that up to 4,000. There are challenges and setbacks. Successful launches are interspersed with spectacular fireballs. Characteristically, Blue Origin failures are announced to the news media after the fact, while SpaceX failures occur under the glare of TV cameras. A pilot for Virgin Galactic dies in a test of SpaceShipTwo, which delays Branson’s plan to send up paying customers by five years. Davenport chronicles the twists and turns as well as he can, but the narrative is so dense at times that it becomes a blur.

In 2014, Bezos and Musk are both guests at the Explorers Club, a more-than-100-year-old organization for adventurers. The two men had dinner once, 10 years earlier, but after that have barely spoken. They each give talks, but at the end of the evening, they are at opposite ends of the stage. Davenport sums up their tense relationship: “Rivalry, it turns out, was the best rocket fuel.” One year later, within the space of a month, Blue Origin and SpaceX land their large new rockets for the first time, like pencils tossed into the air that improbably land on their flat ends. Earth orbit — half a day’s drive straight up — is just the start. Our future off Earth beckons.

The Space Barons

By Christian Davenport

PublicAffairs. 308 pp. $28