Review: When the Heavens Went on Sale
by Jeff Foust
|The field is full of characters, much like any other, with unconventional backgrounds and quirks that are sometimes beneficial and other times destructive.|
The public will better appreciate that after reading When the Heavens Went on Sale, the new book by Ashlee Vance, who previously wrote a biography of Elon Musk (see “Review: Elon Musk”, The Space Review, May 18, 2015.) Here, SpaceX and Musk play only cameo roles. The book is instead, arguably, about the rise of a new generation of startups enabled or inspired by SpaceX’s successes. It is, though, just as much a portrait of the diverse cast of characters that created and worked at those companies.
When the Heavens Went on Sale is, in some respects, four books in one, with separate profiles of Planet, Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly. There is some overlap among the profiled companies—Planet, for example, was an early customer of Rocket Lab, thanks in part to Chris Kemp, who later became CEO of rival launch company Astra—but each company section largely stands on its own.
Those sections are each the most detailed profiles of those companies and their founders. Vance conducted extensive interviews with those founders and many others and traveled the world: to India for a critical launch of Planet’s Dove imaging cubesats, New Zealand to meet with Rocket Lab, and Ukraine at the invitation of Max Polyakov, who had bought Firefly out of bankruptcy. The book expands to include others, notably Pete Worden, the retired Air Force general who led NASA’s Ames Research Center and turned it into a NewSpace incubator of sorts: the three Planet co-founders worked there, as did Kemp.
The first two profiles, of Planet and Rocket Lab, are very detailed but fairly conventional. Vance follows Planet from its origins by its co-founders working on the PhoneSat project at Ames to its current place as one of the leaders in the Earth imaging field, mapping the globe on a daily basis with its fleet of Doves. The Rocket Lab section profiles company founder Peter Beck, who went from a technician at a dishwasher manufacturer to effectively bootstrapping a country’s space program after he was turned away by American space companies.
The book goes in a little different direction when Vance turns to Astra. He got access to the company starting in its early days, when it was still in stealth mode—it was literally named Stealth Space Company for a time—and was there behind the scenes as the company took shape and starting building, and crashing, its first rockets. There are extended passages that are either transcriptions of discussions involving Astra personnel or, in one case, Kemp telling his own life story (“I started to wonder if anyone would believe my descriptions of how he talked and thought unless they experienced it for themselves,” Vance explained.)
|Vance visited Ukraine and toured Soviet-era rocket facilities that had fallen on hard times, accompanied by a gun-toting bodyguard and a pair of “very pretty” women: “We were like an Eastern European version of the A-Team.”|
The last section, on Firefly, also stands out in the use of transcripts of discussions, involving then-CEO Tom Markusic and Polyakov. Those start as an almost comedic study of contrasts between the aerospace engineer who previously worked at SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and the Ukrainian entrepreneur who put an estimated $200 million of his own money into Firefly while showing childlike enthusiasm for a Texas liquor store called Beer Barn. But those conversations, as recounted in the book, turned more contentious as Polyakov grew impatient with delays. Markusic won those arguments after the federal government forced Polyakov to sell his majority stake in Firefly on national security grounds.
Vance is clearly sympathetic for Polyakov, who he felt was treated poorly by the government and considered him someone genuinely interested in helping his home country. That included some of the more colorful parts of the book, where Vance visited Ukraine and toured Soviet-era rocket facilities that had fallen on hard times, accompanied by a gun-toting bodyguard and a pair of “very pretty” women: “We were like an Eastern European version of the A-Team.” (Polyakov did help Ukraine outside of Firefly once Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started last year, while Markusic was soon pushed out of the CEO position at Firefly by new private equity ownership.)
Fascinating people abound in the book, to the point that sometimes they crowd out some of the technical details. In the section about Planet, for example, Vance discusses that the early Dove satellites suffered many technical problems, from overheating to a change in focus of the camera lenses, that the company did not publicly discuss but raised questions, according to one employee, about whether the whole concept of cheap, mass-manufactured imaging cubesats would work. Planet overcame those problems, but the book elides that troubleshooting process.
Those quibbles aside, the book is a fascinating read about an emerging, rapidly changing industry were success remains uncertain (Vance noted in the epilogue that there was a chance one of more of the companies profiled would not exist by the time the book was published; fortunately, all four are still around, although Astra is struggling financially.) If, for any reason, you thought the people in the space industry were boring, When the Heavens Went on Sale will make it clear they far from it.
Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.