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How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight

September 19, 2016

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Julian Guthrie tells the story of the XPRIZE, which helped humanity take a giant leap toward producing private space travel.

There are a lot of books about entrepreneurship. There are a lot of books about innovation and creativity and working hard and making things happen. Over the years, I've read more than I can count. I've never read any quite like Julian Guthrie's new book, How to Make a Spaceship.

How to Make a Spaceship is the story of many people, but at its heart is Peter Diamandis and the XPRIZE. The XPRIZE is famous for offering $10 million to the first team that could build a private spacecraft to make it 100 kilometers into space. Diamandis was thirty-two years old at the time he came up with the idea, had just graduated Harvard Medical School, and had two "ambitious young companies" dedicated to issues of technology and spaceflight. Before that, while in college, he had also founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), at MIT and the International Space Univeristy (ISU).

He opened up the first meeting of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), a student group he formed at MIT in 1980, by proclaiming:

 

"This is our future we're talking about. We can't have myopic politicians say where it goes. We need to stand up for the future of space."

 

Showing an organizational acumen and gumption for advocacy and letter writing that would later save the XPRIZE, SEDS quickly sprouted chapters at Princeton and Yale, and grew into the worldwide organization it is today under Diamandis's leadership. I remember the XPRIZE as being funded by a lone billionaire. The story is much more complicated than that. Of course, if you want to know "how to make a spaceship," the answer is never going to be "alone." And the book is peopled with people whose names and personalities are larger than life: Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk. 

But it is the renegades, heretics, and misfits you haven't heard of before that take up the bulk of the story and do most of the work. They are high-level intellects and characters on par with Diamandis, and are on a mission to commercialize space travel and make it a reality for a wider swath of human beings. Introducing us to Burt Rutan, Guthrie writes:

 

Socially indifferent, mischievous, and antiestablishment. Burt lived in a three-level hexagonal pyramid house among the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert, not far from Edwards Air Force Base.

 

This was the man that designed the Voyager, the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without stopping or refueling, which now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. We may remember the story from the newscasts or cover of magazines, but the full story, told by Guthrie, is a lot less sanitized and more than a little insane. Rutan's brother Dick piloted that plane with aviator (and former lover) Jeana Yeager at a time when they were barely on speaking terms with each other, and he was so sure he wouldn't return alive he recorded a death tape before leaving. The plane, in fact, almost never made it off the ground, and shed some pieces upon takeoff. Those watching on the ground were sure Dick would turn back immediately to land. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager returned the plane nine days later after flying around the Earth without stopping or refueling. 

And, yet, Burt Rutan plays a much bigger part in this story than even that foundational flight.

Introducing us to Erik Lindbergh (grandson of legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh), who Diamandis hoped to enlist in support of the prize, and who it took six months to track down, Guthrie writes: 

 

As it turned out, Erik was living in a yurt on a ten-acre organic farm on a small island near Seattle.

 

It was a prize of $25,000—the Orteig Prize—that first prompted his Lindbergh's grandfather to fly across the ocean in the first place. And it was the story of that prize and Lindbergh's flight that inspired Diamantis to launch the XPRIZE. And Erik Lindbergh, who Diamandis found living in said yurt, suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis, ends up doing something that you'd think it physically impossible for him to do, and something so perfectly fitting, to help raise awareness for the prize—perhaps even save it from dissolution—at its lowest point. 

The book is told in three parts. Part One of the book gives the background of how the prize came to be and the background story of some of the biggest players. Part Two is all about the rough, six-year slog after announcing the prize before Diamandis actually secured a promise of $10 million to fund it. Part Three is all about the race, its risk and reward. And, for all the history changing stories that unfold during the book, one of the greatest success stories is of the XPRIZE foundation itself, which is still going strong under the leadership of Peter Diamandis, and has "more than $100 million in prizes under development."

It is a great, deep exploration of a story, many stories really, that I've witnessed on the front pages in my lifetime, but never truly understood—both in terms of their potential impact on the future of humankind, and the messy, human nature of how they were achieved. 

We have 20 copies available.

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