A compelling profile and stories of private ventures involving space travel and exploration
When you start reading The Space Barons, you could mistake it for a work of fiction, as it has stories of how some bright adventurous minds went about trying to get man to space, sometimes not really for scientific purposes but on a ‘holiday’. There are several books on space where stories are centred on various larger-than-life personalities making this attempt within the realm of fiction. Considering there are an equally large number of movies that deal with such themes of space and space creatures or men going beyond earth, there is some sense of deja vu while reading this book, even though it talks of real people doing real things.
The book by Christian Davenport deals with largely successful entrepreneurs who have built great enterprises like Amazon, Tesla and Virgin looking to conquer space. The storyline is all about how these men have boldly gone where normally only governments venture and how their perseverance is remarkable, as they have not given up even when faced with failure. Davenport has been covering issues dealing with space and defence- related industries for The Washington Post for long and hence has the expertise to write a rather fascinating book on the ventures of these businessmen.
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Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s Space X occupy the core of this book and Davenport goes into the details of their trysts at conquering space. Whether it is West Texas or Cape Canaveral in Florida, these two adventurers have it all to deliver rather swashbuckling enterprises. Right from discovering the land to set up these missions to the eventual fructification of the launches, the author takes us through a diverse range of incidents involving several players. The idea is to make man fly to space and back successfully. Space ventures are unconnected to running enterprises in the fields of automobiles or retail, and hence such ventures are more a reflection of their giant egos, lofty ambition and determination. Such enterprises cost a lot of money and getting investors to believe in them is always a challenge, even if they are using their own funds.
Both Musk and Bezos had this fascinating goal about doing extraordinary things since childhood and TV shows like Star Trek made an impression on the former, who always believed that it was all possible. As everyone knows, Musk is one of the staunchest supporters of colonising Mars, and his company is working toward it. Bezos was always disappointed that the government has not done much on space after the Apollo exploits and in a way started his enterprise to challenge the realm.
The thought was that what the government could not do, would be achieved by individuals with a vision. These men have believed in disruption of a large scale and their business enterprises bear testimony to this idea, as they have changed the way we live our lives. But now their eyes seem to be set on space, which has literally become the last frontier, if not an immediate one. Interestingly, their personalities are quite different. Bezos is patient and low profile, while Musk is brash and does not mince words and actions. But both love to talk of their exploits and dreams and are skilled in execution.
In between, there is also the story of Richard Branson and how his adventures fared. The Virgin story has been quite amazing and the rise from humble music to an airline and space has been covered well by Davenport , as Branson will also qualify as a space baron. Virgin Galactic was Branson’s banner for transporting people to space, which has had a fairly tumultuous journey with considerable failure along the way.
A question that may be asked by the reader while going through this book is whether all these trysts are really worth the money and effort. One normally associates space with the NASA and government outfits, as it is normally within the realm of governments to work on such programmes which is more an extension of scientific research. Commercialising space and promising travel to high net worth individuals is another story that has been built by these entrepreneurs.
The book is heavy in research as it captures moods and human emotions of not just the protagonists but also others involved with these experiments. It delves into their lives and how they have evolved into successful businessmen who can seriously think out of the box. Based on interviews with several persons, the book is made to read like a novel. Davenport is able to make the narrative exciting with insights as he has had access to several of the main players, which makes the storytelling interesting.
At another level one may actually question whether such adventures are called for, as it involves a lot of money. This has become a habit of the rich where the indulgences go beyond luxury as they expend their energy to do something different. We have heard of such billionaires spending on purchasing jewellery, mansions, art and islands. This is probably a new way of how the ‘big men’ spend their ‘big money’
The author is chief economist, CARE Ratings