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Review: How to Make a Spaceship

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How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin, 2016
hardcover, 448 pp.
ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6

Twelve years ago Tuesday, a small spaceplane with a single pilot on board separated from its carrier aircraft in the skies above Mojave, California. The pilot, Brian Binnie, ignited the spaceplane’s hybrid rocket motor and pulled back on the stick, sending the vehicle soaring on an ideal trajectory into space. After reaching a peak altitude of 112 kilometers, comfortably above the 100-kilometers Karman Line, Binnie guided SpaceShipOne, now a glider, back to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

At the book’s heart is Peter Diamandis. Interested in space since a child watching the Apollo landings, he wanted to find a way to go himself, which led him to MIT and Harvard Medical School.

That flight, the second suborbital spaceflight of SpaceShipOne in less than a week, allowed Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and his financial backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to claim the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE. The crowds who assembled in Mojave, from celebrities to the general public, came to witness history and, they believed, the opening of a new era in commercial spaceflight, one where people routinely travel into space. Yet, 12 years later, that flight remains the last time a commercial suborbital vehicle carried a person into space.

The effort to win the Ansari X PRIZE and open that new era of spaceflight are recounted in Julian Guthrie’s new book How to Make a Spaceship. It is the best account to date of the efforts leading up to the prize-winning flights of SpaceShipOne, but little about the years thereafter, as the euphoria turned to impatience and disappointment.

The book revolves around several people, but at its heart is Peter Diamandis. Interested in space since a child watching the Apollo landings, he wanted to find a way to go himself, which led him to MIT and Harvard Medical School. When he realized that he would not make it the conventional way as a NASA astronaut—a small tear in a retina sustained playing football would likely disqualify him medically—he sought alternate ways of realizing his dream.

That led to a series of interconnected ventures: organizations like Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and International Space University, and startups like International Microspace, which sough to develop a small launch vehicle. By the mid 1990s, Diamandis hit upon a new approach—or, more accurately, reapplied an old approach—to enable his spaceflight dreams: a prize. In 1996, that led to the original X Prize for suborbital spaceflight, even though raising the funds for the prize purse and operations remained a challenge for nearly the entire length of the competition.

The book is not about Diamandis alone. How to Make a Spaceship follows Rutan, the legendary spacecraft designer who, by the mid-1990s, was examining ways to develop a spaceflight system. That, of course, became SpaceShipOne, and won the backing, with some effort, from Allen. Another central figure is Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of the legendary aviator (whose transatlantic flight won the $25,000 Orteig Prize and served as an inspiration for Diamandis.) Lindbergh found new purpose in life supporting the X Prize and, in turn, helped the prize.

How to Make a Spaceship excels at providing an insider’s view of the development of what became the Ansari X PRIZE and of SpaceShipOne. That includes the many people Diamandis solicited to sponsor the prize purse who went on to their own space ventures, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Diamandis, meanwhile, was simultaneously handling other efforts, like Blastoff, a company with plans for a commercial lunar lander and sample return mission but which never achieved, well, blastoff. (There was yet another Diamandis venture from that era, not mentioned in the book:, a space portal site started shortly before, but soon overshadowed by, Lou Dobbs’ in 1999. That is a story for another day, though.)

The book ends not long after Binnie’s flight on that October day 12 years ago, beyond an epilogue that places Diamandis in the National Air and Space Museum looking up at SpaceShipOne, and capsule descriptions of what happened to the others involved in the years since the prize was won in 2004. There’s little discussion about what has happened—or, more accurately, not happened—in the dozen years since.

A number of other teams that were competing for the Ansari X PRIZE are mentioned from time to time in the book, but none have flown anyone into space. Some teams have faded away, others appear in perpetual stasis, and at least one has sharply pivoted: ARCA, the Romanian team that is among those profiled in the book, recently moved to New Mexico—not to launch rockets but instead to build hoverboards.

There’s little discussion about what has happened—or, more accurately, not happened—in the dozen years since the X Prize was won.

Even Rutan himself is disappointed that no one yet as followed the trail he blazed. “Yes, I have been surprised and disappointed to see that 12 [years] after ss1, no one has even flown humans in a commercial spaceship,” he said in an “ask me anything” session on Reddit last month that was organized in part to promote the book. “I had predicted that there would be multiple space lines” flying people by now, he added.

And even Diamandis, the child inspired by Apollo who later was juggling multiple space-related efforts before and during the original X Prize (he got involved in Blastoff, the book notes, in part to help raise money for the prize), seems much less involved in space now. The X PRIZE Foundation is far more diversified in terms of the prizes it offers, with the Google Lunar X PRIZE—now set to expire at the end of 2017—its only space-related prize. He is much more visible now for efforts like Singularity University or books like Abundance and Bold that seem aimed at more general business audiences, with space playing a cameo role, at best. A recent blog post on his website, for example, offered “a conversation about how exponential technologies will change our relationship with sex.” Space may still be a passion for him, but it’s not the only one.

But the vision of commercial human spaceflight kindled by the original X Prize, and told in the pages of How to Make a Spaceship, lives on. On Tuesday, if all goes as planned, another suborbital vehicle will take to the skies: Blue Origin plans another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle, this time to perform an in-flight abort test of the vehicle’s crew capsule. (As this article was being prepared for publication, it turned out that not everything was going to plan: weather has delayed the flight until at least Wednesday the 5th.) Blue Origin, of course, is funded by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire that Diamandis once approached to fund the X Prize and, back in the 1980s, was president of the Princeton University chapter of SEDS. Even if the X Prize legacy hasn’t lived up to the hopes of 12 years ago, the broader vision espoused by Diamandis continues.