The latest iPhone is great, but the real buzz in science and technology is the plight to colonize Mars. Perhaps still too far-fetched for some, the race to be the first commercial shuttle between Earth and Mars is a very real and burgeoning enterprise, with unthinkable funds being expended (and sometimes exploded) along the way. Recent movies and books such as Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2011; 2014), and The Terranauts (2016) have begun to imbue collective popular consciousness with the rather old space ambitions, but it is often hard to separate fact from fiction when they are so tightly coupled. This is where Christian Davenport’s forthcoming book, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, fills a rapidly widening void. A reporter for the Washington Post, Davenport has extensive material and history from which to work, and a reporter’s knack for stating facts and extracting the perfect array of material to tell the story.
Of course that last statement may not sit well in the midst of today’s journalism and news reporting, with all the mudslinging and biases marring objectivity. And, indeed, the curious reader will find that one of the chief figures of this book, Jeff Bezos, owns the author’s company: the Washington Post. But, there are two things that safeguard the book from being chucked aside and branded as propaganda. First, Davenport addresses this unfortunate relationship head on in the acknowledgements. And second, the text is almost completely trimmed of any moral and ethical judgments. The only time these appear are in the form of, say, reporting the reactions of a talk show host. But even then the reported reaction bolsters the objective point of the situation by laying out all sides of the public discourse. Davenport himself is almost absent from the text, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from the research he has done.
Though Davenport skillfully builds tension where needed and deftly narrates the myriad stories of failures and triumphs, the book does read like a long newspaper article. Depending on your disposition, this will be good or bad. For me, it made for some arduous hours of reading, especially in the middle section. Because of the density of facts (dates and times and statistics) and the hopping around in timeline, I had to work hard to stifle my compulsion to skim or skip ahead. On the other hand, the narrative pacing is trim and moves along at a steady clip.
The content of the book is framed with Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare—Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) being the tortoise and Elon Musk (SpaceX) playing the hare. This was a brilliant choice by Davenport, as it provides a perfect parallel in temperaments between the two moguls. Yet they are driven by the same factors. Patriotically, both feel that NASA has failed to maintain a public interest in space and stay ahead of Russia (indeed, the US has piggybacked on Russian technology for decades). Technologically, both men are interested in reusable rocketry. And biologically, both are concerned with making human beings the first interplanetary species. Bezos and Musk are both driven and intelligent men, contrasted by the respective mantras of “slow and steady” and “plow the line.” And both have amassed a thriving cult following.
Davenport stays disinterested in the passion for creating a habitat on Mars, leaving it to Bezos and Musk to express the infectious vigor behind the aspirations, but he does not shy away from the very real dangers and high stakes behind the projects. There have been many technological failures along the way, some fatal. In rocketry intended to break free of gravity’s grip, a single bolt the size of a dime can cause utter destruction. At times, one feels that we have a long way to go, but at other times, when reading of the huge advances these commercial companies have made in so short a time, one feels that we are on the cusp of an enormous shift in culture. With the backing of such wealthy individuals as Paul Allen and Charles Branson, the quest to provide commercial flights to space and ultimately colonize Mars is unrelenting.
Initially, this book can seem like something found on a Barnes & Noble display of “interesting reading” intended for people who don’t really know what they want to read. But by the end, I felt more informed, more aware of these matters that seem circumscribed to the Twittersphere. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have made incredible advances both in technology and in stature to commercialize a feat that was once monopolized by NASA. Figuring out how to transport and sustain life on another planet is not simply a fanciful plot for science-fiction any longer, and if you’re wondering where to start for understanding how we got to this point, you would do well to read Davenport’s new book.