The New Space Race and Its Origins in ‘Rocket Billionaires’ by Tim Fernholz

20th Jan 2023
The New Space Race and Its Origins in ‘Rocket Billionaires’ by Tim Fernholz

Would today’s world be so technologically developed without dreamers who, no matter what, work hard to make their ideas a reality? The spectacular development of space exploration began in the 20th century with the constant race of two huge states – the USSR and the USA. But at the beginning of the 21st century, the industry underwent significant changes, and a new space race started. The non-fiction book Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the New Space Race by Tim Fernholz lays out what happened when billionaires, who earned their fortunes during the turbulent web era, invested their wealth in something more than just a business and how the bravest and craziest ideas are slowly changing the world.

It all begins with a dream

The author of the book, Tim Fernholz, a journalist who covers state, business and society for Quartz, perfectly explains the vibe of the time in which the new space race begins in an approachable and witty manner. He managed to have conversations with the top executives of a variety of space companies, including Elon Musk, which allowed him to share lots of insights and, as a result, a comprehensive view on the formation of modern space exploration.

The story unfolds around the competition between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the challenges and obstacles on the way to building a rocket, and the attempts to claim a piece of the American space industry pie, together with such ‘sharks’ as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. In the beginning, hardly anyone believed private rocket building would work. As Fernholz put it, “These new guys were good at putting rockets down on paper and drumming up hoopla in the media. But when were they going to actually fly something useful?” In the book, you will find the romanticism of startups, a story of ups and downs, desperation and faith that you can create something nobody did before.

You’ll be completely immersed in the atmosphere of creation, just like the stories about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and their garage startups. But more remarkable, as we’re talking about rockets here!

Old Space vs New Space

After NASA’s successes in the late 60s, the US entered a new phase of space exploration. At first, it seemed that all of the money and glory would fall to their knees – unlimited budgets, ambitious space programmes, and immense love of the space fans. Still, ULA and NASA tried to find the most cost effective and safe way of manufacturing and launching rockets.

Still, several things influenced the following space development: the dotcom crash, the GPS revolution, and the “Challenger” tragedy. In 1986, “Challenger” space shuttle with a teacher on board blew up a few minutes after the launch. The tiny mistake led to the stagnation of the whole US space program. It was too hard to start all over as, you know, rockets are costly.

“Challenger” was NASA’s first attempt to create a reusable spacecraft, revealing a large number of issues with spacecraft intended for multiple launches. But soon, the government realised they needed to look for another solution. That’s when the state-owned NASA’s interests and the billionaires’ enthusiasm met.

Musk vs Bezos

The book begins with the story of Elon Musk’s first unsuccessful Falcon 9 rocket launch and gradually dives deeper into rocket building, explaining the details of spacecraft manufacturing and the complexity of the operation. We also learn the similar story of Bezos’ Blue Origin company, its early steps and spirit. It reads like a fascinating adventure back to the moment when rocket billionaires were viewed as rock stars and were willing to invest in companies going toe-to-toe towards reaching the unknown space.

The phenomenon of private space companies can be explained in different ways: bored billionaires wanting to go down in history, NASA in crisis, and the world reaching the point when we needed to scale up our technology and explore space more actively. Choose the angle you want. But you can’t deny that it all changed forever after Elon Musk started conquering the industry. Giant companies that used to solve all of the issues behind closed doors with the government finally realised they must also enter the race. Actual competition started, and it boosted the space business as nothing before.

Is the “Rocket Billionaires” book worth reading?

If you’re into space, you’ll definitely like this book. It’s an exciting story about the roots of an entirely phase of new space exploration, a journey and an adventure that will make you better understand how things work inside the industry. It’s also kind of a source of inspiration for everyone in doubt. If these guys managed to build massive rockets and launch people into space, you can also (at least try) make your dreams come true. But be warned: people will start taking your words seriously only after you prove your worth.

If you’re not a space geek, you’ll still find the reading insightful, as it is full of problem-solving use cases and business wisdom. At least you’ll find out that people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos had a lot of troubles on their way and what decisions it took for them to get to where they’re now.

And the author legitimately emphasises that we still don’t have the answers to all the questions about the future of space. “Space wars, Martian colonies, lunar mines—it all sounds preposterous. Critics of the rocket billionaires’ hubris often note that they haven’t answered basic questions about what life will be like in space: How will people earn money? How will they live? Can they even survive constant cosmic radiation?” Nevertheless, technologies are being developed, questions are getting answered, and new questions are arising. And in between, we’re all looking into the sky, enjoying the stars and trying to understand what the future will bring and whether space life is to become a reality anytime soon.

If for some reason, you completely missed out on the evolution of the industry and the past 10-20 years of space development, you need to read this book. Scientific space programmes, private space stations, and colonisation of the moon and Mars are not just a fantasy; this is a reality all around us. And the book “Rocket Billionaires” will provide a comprehensive explanation of how the industry started, how it works, why the new space race is a new phase of space exploration, and why everyone around is talking about Elon Musk.

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