‘The Space Barons’

 

Christian Davenport, PublicAffairs, 308 pages, $28.

Space is hard. 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 “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos” by Christian Davenport, who covers the space and defense industries for the Washington Post. 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. 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. Musk is brash and impatient. 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 story arc follows Bezos and Musk as they each use personal wealth to realize childhood dreams. In 2014, Bezos and Musk are both guests at the Explorers Club, a more-than-100-year-old organization for adventurers. 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, both land new rockets for the first time.”