Starship Enterprise

Today’s Wall Street Journal runs a review (subscribers only) by Glenn Reynolds of the new book Rocketeers by Michael Belfiore. (Subtitle: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space.) Considering that Glenn is a professor of law, a scholar, an author himself, and a seemingly full-time blogger, it is remarkable that Glenn finds time for such interests as technology, entrepreneurship, and science fiction on display in the review. Glenn hasn’t even mentioned the review yet at Instapundit. Here is a bit of the review:

In the old days of science fiction, the recipe for conquering space was simple: take some genius rocket scientists, maybe add a rich guy who shared the dream and provided funds, stir in a lot of backyard-style tinkering, and soon you’d have a spacecraft that did the job. From E.E. Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” (1928) to Robert Heinlein’s “Rocket Ship Galileo” (1947), the assumption was that spaceflight would take off pretty much the way aviation had taken off, thanks to the skilled hands of dedicated amateurs who would blaze a trail soon to be followed by big business and big government.

It didn’t work out that way, of course. The earliest days of rocketry, when Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun built rockets in garages in the 1920s and 1930s, did look like the early days of aviation. But by 1957, when the first Sputnik satellite was launched, it was clear that space exploration was going to be mostly a job for federal agencies and tax dollars.

The big-government approach did get us to the moon — the process might have been expensive and complicated, but it had also been fast, and it had worked. Unfortunately, the big-government approach stopped working. The Apollo program was ended early, the promised follow-up missions didn’t appear, and talk of going to Mars quickly died down. We spent most of a decade waiting for the Space Shuttle, and when it arrived it was a disappointment: an orbital trucking service, and not a cheap or reliable one either. The International Space Station was likewise slow, overpriced and in some ways even creakier than the Mir and Skylab stations that had preceded it.

As NASA has lost its glow in recent years, space enthusiasts have begun to wonder whether early science-fiction writers might have been right after all. And indeed, private-sector space initiatives are heating up again. So far, as Michael Belfiore shows in “Rocketeers,” the results look promising.

Mr. Belfiore opens with a discussion of Peter Diamandis, the communications entrepreneur who, in 1996, announced an open competition for what he called the X Prize. (It was renamed the Ansari X Prize after two venture capitalists, Amir and Anousheh Ansari, put up $10 million for the award.) The challenge to competitors: Develop a spacecraft able to carry three people to an altitude of roughly 62 miles — generally regarded as the point where airspace ends and outer space begins — and safely return them to Earth, then repeat the trip within two weeks.

The X Prize contest was reminiscent of aviation’s early days, when privately funded prizes inspired design competitions and trial-and-error efforts with comparatively little governmental help. Charles Lindbergh didn’t fly the Atlantic with the assistance of a federal grant; he was chasing the Orteig Prize. And Lindbergh was one of many aviators competing for the $25,000 award — it touched off a frenzy of creative thinking and problem-solving.

The Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. The excitement over the contest prompted others to look afresh at the possibilities of space transportation. Mr. Belfiore offers an inside look at many of these “NewSpace” entrepreneurs, including John Carmack, the creator of the Doom video game. In 2001, he launched the Armadillo Aerospace project, currently competing for the million-dollar NASA Lunar Lander Prize. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, has started SpaceX, a startup that has launched everything from Naval research payloads to the ashes of “Star Trek” actor James Doohan.

Glenn’s review is a virtuoso performance by an intellectual venturer deserving of recognition in his own right.

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