Space Barons

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos

Christian Davenport, Central 338.76294 D2471s 2018

This is the best "space luminary" book I have read so far; the author's research and interviews reveals motivation, not myths.

Elon Musk and !SpaceX are the current media darlings; building a new space launch family from scratch, cleverly avoiding unnecessary expense, re-using an orbit-enabling first stage are admirable accomplishments. Davenport does not delve into !SpaceX money raising, beyond the semi-successful fight for fair access to the US government feed trough; besides Musk's personal wealth and Uncle Sam, where do the dollars come from, and why will the dollars keep flowing?

The answer is clearer for Jeff Bezos; he funds Blue Origin as his personal hobby from his Amazon earnings. A swell hobby to be sure, but Blue Origin stops the day Bezos does. Bezos seems more likeable, perhaps because Davenport had more time with him, and portrays a man who behaves like I hope I would in his position. But he remains responsible for Amazon, a wealthy target for scamster vendors. His funding source can evaporate, along with a sizeable chunk of the global economy, if he doesn't continually develop clever new defenses against emerging threats. Does he have enough defensive depth for both of his chosen missions?

I may have met Jeff Bezos long ago; I attended a space conference at Princeton in the mid-1980s, when he was a space-activist student there, and chapter president of SEDS, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

If Musk fails (health, sanity, accident), can SpaceX survive? And what about all Musk's other distractions - Tesla electric cars, Batteries, Hyperloop, Tunnels, Solar City, AI cars, and Mars ... do these make Musk a better rocket builder? If Musk attempts movies and television shows ... game over, he can't complete a project and delegate to successors. I'm far more worried about Musk's vulnerabilities, mostly to the corrosive effect of adulation on ego. Musk (and perhaps Bezos) needs someone like the clappers in Jonathan Swift's Laputa, who smack their patrons with pebble-filled bladders to restore their attention to reality.

Chapter five focuses on Burt Rutan, Paul Allen, and Richard Branson, and their quixotic quest for wings to orbit. Wings can reduce dependence on launch sites - there are a lot of runways out there. That makes a space-capable solid rocket ( like Pegasus ) launched from a 747 a survivable military option in a global conflict.

But Stratolaunch (p265-269), intended to lift a Black Ice shuttle (and presumably its 2000 tonnes of external tank and fuel) can only be built and maintained in a single Mohave hangar. Solid rockets are less efficient and more expensive and polluting than conventional vertically-launched liquid fuel rockets like Falcon and Blue. Perhaps I'm ignorant, but I can't imagine carrying a liquid-fuel-laden rocket first stage horizontally under an aircraft, in a compression-heated and turbulent airstream near wings and flaming jet engines. Liquid fuel rockets are difficult enough, standing still, vertically, and fed with makeup volatiles until just before launch. Solids are low efficiency polluters, mostly suitable for lobbing warheads over the pole. Nuclear warheads are one of the few machines that do more environmental damage than a solid rocket.

35,000 feet (10.7 km) and 853 km/h (237 m/s) is an energy boost of 133 kJ/kg. Low earth orbit is 32 MJ. If orbit is halfway to anywhere, then Stratolaunch is 0.2% of the way to anywhere. An incredible amount of complication and expense, risk and restriction, for very little gain.

I appreciate that Paul Allen wants to do good, and wants to share the fun he can create with his billions. I very very much appreciate his contributions to Seattle, the University of Washington, and the Suzallo-Allen Library in particular.

Mr. Allen, if you ever read this, thanks! Your support of the UW library, with their hospitable treatment of scruffy researchers like myself, has greatly helped my own research. Perhaps someday, you can help find the next home for my 1934-1963 bound set of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, along a few unbound years from the 1980s. You might be amused by a January 1948 paper by the 30 year old Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space electronics; "thousands of thermionic valves". It was published after the invention of the transistor, but before the public announcement. Sir Arthur was a visionary, but a stodgy one ...

And while I have your attention: a far better space application of big aircraft is catching returning spacecraft in midair.

I am very tempted to purchase a copy of Space Barons for future reference, but I need to downsize, not add more books. However, there are copies in four of my favorite local libraries (all checked out, including the copy in front of me). When the demand slacks off, some of those library copies will be available for future reference as well. The Portland State University Library hasn't a copy (yet); perhaps I should reward the author and PSU by purchasing and donating a copy. You did a great job, Mr. Davenport.

SpaceBarons (last edited 2018-09-17 01:08:22 by KeithLofstrom)