Book recounts how billionaires started a space race

Binnie, Allen and Rutan
Seattle billionaire Paul Allen (center) shakes the hand of SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie in 2004 with rocket plane designer Burt Rutan by his side. (Photo courtesy of Scaled Composites LLC)

Commercial spaceflight seems to be hitting its stride right about now, thanks in part to the launch programs funded by billionaires such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Vulcan Aerospace’s Paul Allen.

But the spark for that entrepreneurial space was lit two decades ago, and a newly published book reveals how Musk, Bezos and Allen were striking some the matches way back when.

“How to Make a Spaceship,” written by Julian Guthrie, focuses on XPRIZE co-founder Peter Diamandis and his years-long quest to create a $10 million competition for private-sector spaceflight.

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Rocket reports from Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin

Image: VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is brought out from its hangar in Mojave, Calif. A portion of the plane’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership can be seen at right. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In the past few weeks, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space venture and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture have both had a lot to talk about. Today, both companies delved more deeply into the nitty-gritty of getting rockets ready for flight.

Three weeks after Virgin Galactic unveiled its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, the company said it was putting the craft through integrated vehicle ground testing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. These tests involves operating the plane’s systems under ground conditions that mimic space conditions as much as possible.

“For example, instead of just testing our feather lock actuators at room temperature, we use liquid nitrogen to chill them down to the temperatures they will experience when performing at high altitude,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

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Space billionaires trade banter and blastoffs

Image: Richard Branson
Richard Branson is in a friendly rivalry with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may have done another flight test, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is making waves with its rocket progress – but don’t forget about Richard Branson.

“Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t,” the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic said during a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “There’ll be banter like this which will take place, and that’s good. People will have a choice of which spaceships they want to use to go to space.”

Blue Origin is developing spaceships for suborbital as well as orbital trips. In November, Blue Origin’s uncrewed New Shepard test vehicle went into space for the first time and made a successful vertical landing. If all goes well, the company could be flying passengers in two years.

Today there was a torrent of tweets about a possible Blue Origin flight test. First, the Federal Aviation Administration alerted aviators to stay away from the airspace over the company’s test range in West Texas. Then, around midday today, the restrictions were lifted. One Twitter user, Patrick Brown, went so far as to post a picture of what appears to be a rocket trail leading up from the company’s test range in West Texas.

Blue Origin kept mum. “Unfortunately, Blue Origin doesn’t have anything to contribute at this time,” the company said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

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Billionaire space club pits Musk vs. Bezos et al.

Image: Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin's New Shepard craft
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (in hat and sunglasses) pops open a bottle of champagne after Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket landing in November. (Credit: Blue Origin)

When Jeff Bezos welcomed SpaceX to the rocket landing “club” last week, it set off a round of twittering over whether Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX were really in the same league. What kind of club was Bezos talking about?

The club that Bezos had in mind was precisely defined: It consists of ventures that can launch a rocket booster from the ground into space, and then bring that booster back intact for a vertical landing.

Blue Origin was the first to become a member, during a November test flight of its suborbital New Shepard spaceship in Texas. SpaceX followed in December, with the successful landing of its Falcon 9’s first-stage booster after the launch of 11 Orbcomm telecommunication satellites.

Lots of folks have pointed out how much more difficult it is to bring back a booster after an orbital launch, as opposed to New Shepard’s up-and-down suborbital trip. The Falcon 9 stage is more than 10 times as powerful and rose twice as high as New Shepard. The implications are greater, as well: Musk says total rocket reusability could lower the cost of delivering satellites and other payloads to orbit by a factor of 100, and eventually open the way for building a city on Mars.

Based on Bezos’ narrow definition of the club, Blue Origin may have been the first member, but this month SpaceX took the lead.

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