Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space

Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space

4.8 6
by Michael Belfiore

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“That this story is still unfolding makes it especially exciting to read. These men are still in their workshops, tinkering their way into orbit.” —David Gelles, FORBES

On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne, built by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, entered space and ushered in the commercial space age. Investment capital began to pour


“That this story is still unfolding makes it especially exciting to read. These men are still in their workshops, tinkering their way into orbit.” —David Gelles, FORBES

On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne, built by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, entered space and ushered in the commercial space age. Investment capital began to pour into the new commercial spaceflight industry. Richard Branson’s VirginGalactic plans to ferry space tourists out of the atmosphere. Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is developing the world’s first commercial space station (i.e., space hotel). These space entrepreneurs, including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and founder Jeff Bezos, now see space as the next big thing.

In Rocketeers, Michael Belfiore goes behind the scenes of this nascent industry, capturing its wild-west, anything-goes flavor. Likening his research to “hanging out in the Wright brothers’ barn,” Belfiore offers an inspiring and entertaining look at the people who are not afraid to make their bold dreams a reality.

“The commercial space race is heating up so fast you need a cheat sheet to keep track of all the billionaires and gamblers vying to be the first private entrepreneur to blast paying customers into orbit. [Belfiore] does a stellar job introducing an intriguing cast of characters.” —Mark Horowitz, Wired

“The privatization of space travel is an essential step toward realizing our cosmic destiny. In his engaging, highly readable Rocketeers, Michael Belfiore tells the fascinating story of the entrepreneurs who have already made it happen.” —Buzz Aldrin

“A riveting, you-are-there account of how this ragtag collection of innovative thinkers, brave pilots, and bold visionaries is—right now—launching one of the most exciting new industries in history. Belfiore’s eloquent writing and exhaustive reporting really bring this mysterious, secretive world to life.” —Eric Adams, Popular Science

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

This readable and compelling account of commercial spaceflight opens at the Mojave Desert October 4, 2004, X Prize competition for the first private U.S. space launch, then traces the new space entrepreneurs' time line backward and forward. Freelance journalist Belfiore regularly covers spaceflight, and his passion for the topic led him to get involved in some of the enterprises (e.g., Brian Feeney's "da Vinci Project") discussed here. So, his coverage is not entirely objective, but it is exciting. The author's description of the enthusiastic D.I.Y. approach of the visionary engineers and businessmen, in contrast to the moribund state of NASA, is a theme currently echoed elsewhere (see Wired magazine's June 2007 cover story). Belfiore makes a vivid link between Peter Diamandis, Gregg Maryniak, Jim Akkerman, and the other "rocketeers" and the group of garage-based inventors like the Wright brothers who made subspace flight a reality. Belfiore can lapse into spaceflight clichés (e.g., "loosen the bounds of gravity"), but his engaging style and detailed notes make this an involving book. Highly recommended for public and academic collections.
—Sara Tompson

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HarperCollins Publishers
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How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space

Chapter One

Space or Bust

Peter Diamandis and the X PRIZE

Princeton, New Jersey, spring 1994. It was a perfect day for flying. Clear and smooth blue skies, with a light breeze from the west. Even better, it was Sunday, and space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Gregg Maryniak had a rare day off together. Diamandis and Maryniak had just come off a long hard run at starting a satellite-launching business together, an effort that had proved unsuccessful. Actually, Maryniak was to observe less charitably years later, "we lost a shirt each."

For Maryniak, a pilot from the age of sixteen, there was no better way to get some much-needed perspective than by renting a Cessna at Princeton Airport and taking to the air. Diamandis, who'd put in twenty-five to thirty hours of flight time toward his own pilot's license, couldn't agree more, though he rarely seemed able to find the time to fly simply for enjoyment.

Their plane for this day was a Cessna 172, like the others at the airport, a gracefully aged quarter century old. This was flying as it was meant to be, thought Maryniak as he climbed into the pilot's seat: controls little changed from aviation's golden age, simple mechanical indicators, and a push/pull throttle jutting from the instrument panel. Flight, distilled to its purest elements in a slow, low-flying plane that lets you feel the wind pushing back against the airframe, gives you views on all sides, and even, with a gentle roll to the left or the right, allows you to lookstraight down on treetops and highways.

Diamandis got in the copilot's seat, and Maryniak's ten-year-old daughter climbed in the back. They took off to the west and then turned east toward Raritan Bay. The steely gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the New Jersey shore rolled into view below them, and in the distance to their left, the glass towers of Manhattan's financial district flashed in the sun. Maryniak steered the plane north, keeping Manhattan on their right, overflying New York Harbor and the mouth of the Hudson River.

To their left the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades gave way to the green, sun-dappled mountains made famous by the Hudson River school of painters more than a century before. It didn't take an extreme stretch of the imagination—a squint to one direction rather than another at the mountains rising on either side of the river—to see the river and its valley as Henry Hudson had found it nearly four hundred years before, unspoiled by industry, densely forested with hardwoods hundreds of years old, the domain of vast flocks of blackbirds and wild turkeys and light-footed Native Americans hunting deer, a place of mystery and adventure and vast, untapped natural resources: the jewel of the New World.

Soaring above it all, Diamandis got excited about finally finishing his flight training. "Maybe this time I'm really going to do it," he told Maryniak. "Isn't this just magnificent?" Maryniak agreed.

That day was still fresh in his mind a week later when Maryniak passed a bookshop with his wife and daughters near their home in Princeton. There he found a copy of one of his favorite books, The Spirit of St. Louis, by Charles Lindbergh, and decided to give it to Diamandis as a present. The book was a chronicle of Lindbergh's epoch-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. But more than that, its lyrical recounting of the golden years of aviation was a siren call to all who dreamed of flight. Maryniak thought that maybe the book, along with the memory of the perfect day of flying they had shared, would inspire Diamandis to finish his flight training.

The book inspired Diamandis, all right, but not in the way Maryniak expected. Perpetually on the move, always scheduled to the hilt with his various business ventures, Diamandis let months go by before he found the time to read The Spirit of St. Louis—when he settled into a winter vacation at his parents' house in Florida. Once he did start reading, though, he couldn't stop. "I just spent the entire vacation in my room reading this book like my life depended on it," he later recalled. As Maryniak had thought, Diamandis was inspired by Lindbergh's recounting of aviation's barnstorming years after World War I. But what really blew him away was the book's revelation of Lindbergh's motivation for flying solo across the Atlantic. Like most -people with a passing familiarity with Lindbergh's feat, Diamandis had assumed that Lindbergh had made the journey in May 1927 simply as an enormous personal challenge. In fact, he did it to win a prize.

The prize was $25,000 in cash, offered in 1919 by a French-American hotelier named Raymond Orteig "as a stimulus to courageous aviators . . . to be awarded to the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris. . . ." When Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on New York's Long Island on May 19, 1927, two other Orteig competitors were on the ground preparing for transatlantic flights of their own. One of them was the favorite to win the prize: Commander Richard E. Byrd, the well-financed aviator who had made headlines for overflying the North Pole earlier that month. Lindbergh's success was due in part to his daring to take off into bad weather in a calculated risk based on years of experience flying the mail on cross-country flights. Significantly to Diamandis, none of the three Orteig competitors who eventually made the transatlantic crossing used new or exotic technology to do so; all flew airplane and engine designs already in use at the time. The feat was made possible by acts of courage rather than by exotic new technologies.

A close competition featuring an underdog pitted against the star aviator of the day, a cash prize, and feats of derring-do—all contributed to the American public, in the words of . . .

How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space
. Copyright © by Michael Belfiore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael Belfiore is one of only a handful of freelance journalists covering commercial spaceflight. Born in 1969—the year Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon—Belfiore has always been fascinated by space travel. He lives with his family in Woodstock, New York.

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Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Rocketeers by Michael Belfiore is not so much a history of commercial space as it is a kind of survey of the state of affairs of the same as of about spring of 2007. If suffers a little from the stream of consciousness writing style, jumping from one subject to the other. Nevertheless it is an inspiring story about a small group of entrepreneurs who propose to open the high frontier of space for commerce, and incidentally for everyone who is not a highly paid, highly trained employee of some government. The subtext of Rocketeers, besides the dramatic stories of risk takers and dreamers building their own rockets, is a kind of wistfulness, bordering sometimes on anger on a future that never came to pass. Though Belfiore was busily being born in 1969, the year of Apollo 11, he shares the feeling that many of a certain age has experienced from time to time. It's the twenty first century, and where are those colonies on the Moon and interplanetary space liners we were promised. The reasons that future has not yet come to pass are many and complex, but many people, perhaps overly simplistically, blame NASA. The agency that was once toasted as the organization that took men to the Moon in eight short years is not regularly excoriated as being a bloated, unimaginative, and often incompetent bureaucracy. It is an image, considering what has happened since Apollo, that NASA has helped bring on itself and will have a hard time (some suggest impossible time) overcoming. No matter, say the heroes depicted in Rocketeers. If NASA can't bring about the future of a space faring civilization, we shall do it ourselves. Belfoire leaps effortlessly from story to story. Here is Peter Diamandis, who conceived and wrought the X Prize to build and launch into space the first private space craft. Here is Burt Rutan, master builder of air craft who won the X Prize with his SpaceShipOne and thus made commercial space almost respectable. Here is Elon Musk, the South African born Internet magnate who proposes to be the Prince Henry the Navigator of the space age by building his own fleet of low cost rockets as well as a manned space ship in partnership with NASA. And here is Robert Bigelow, the Los Vegas hotel tycoon whose interest in UFOs has inspired him to conceive and start to build the first private space station made from inflatable modules with technology first developed by NASA. And of course no story of the nascent commercial space sector can be complete without a look at Sir Richard Branson, a man who resembles nothing less than an Elizabethan Sea Dog whose Virgin Galactic proposes to be the first commercial space line. Belfiore mentions in passing how even NASA, once very adverse to commercial space, has now embraced the swashbuckling entrepreneurs like Musk and Bigelow as partners and potential providers of services. One curious omission in Rocketeers is its scant mention of commercial space efforts that occurred before the winning of the X Prize dating back to the 1970s. All of those early efforts failed for various reasons, but have proven nevertheless to be valuable lessons. The story of Otrag, Beal, the Rotary Rocket, and others deserves to be told. Belfiore ends his book with a perhaps fanciful look at the world of 2034. NASA, once the alpha and omega of space flight in the Western World, is relegated to providing paying passengers to private space station in Low Earth Orbit or (perhaps, though it is mentioned in passing) being part of the crew of a private/public expedition to Mars. The private sector in that year dominates space flight. Real life will probably not match exactly Belifoire's imagination, but one suspects that in certain aspects at least it will resemble it greatly, through no little credit to the people he writes about in Rocketeers.