WHEN THE HEAVENS WENT ON SALE: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach
Author: Ashlee Vance
The period from the launch of Russia’s first Sputnik 1 satellite to the end of the Apollo programme lasted a scant 15 years. A decade later, the United States was regularly launching crewed space shuttle missions. But over the following 30 years, the space race turned into a space slog.
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The long winter of the US government’s space programme is the dim background for Ashlee Vance’s When the Heavens Went on Sale, a chronicle of what Vance paints as a new space race, told through the lively stories of three rocket makers and a satellite company.
While SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket and spacecraft company, has sucked up much of the public attention, Vance says, a new industry has flowered, thanks largely to the example of SpaceX. Instead of the perception of a NASA culture that features doom-loop delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns, this one’s image is driven by Silicon Valley principles of cheaper and faster, with private companies staking out the final frontier at cut-rate prices.
Vance’s story is set in motion by the exile of Gen S Pete Worden, an astrophysicist and top military science official, to the backwater of NASA’s Silicon Valley operations. Having alienated almost every brand of bureaucrat, Worden is packed off to Ames Research Center, a cradle of space innovation that, by the time of his arrival, has turned into a tomb for promising ideas. Worden, an irrepressible space evangelist since the Reagan era, made the most of this by gathering around him young engineers who actually wanted to send stuff into space.
The many-tentacled NASA makes for an infuriating villain, a rapacious bureaucracy with interest only in self-preservation. Frustration with the inability of the government to build things — especially public works — is a common theme these days, and the scenes set within NASA offer a front-row seat to understanding it. Worden’s foes think nothing of siccing federal investigators on him and his team. His team is accused, on the flimsiest of pretexts, of sabotaging the US space programme for China’s benefit, mishandling secrets by taking a NASA laptop to a space conference in Vienna and, at the nadir, misusing government resources by taking a morning to dress up as Vikings and film a video.
In Vance’s telling, NASA and its usual-suspect corporate partners were basically devoted to doing very little — or ideally, nothing — at maximum expense. So Worden’s team went in the opposite direction: The simpler and cheaper the better. Will Marshall, a physics prodigy and space expert, became the informal leader of a group of Ames recruits living in a Silicon Valley group house, known as the Rainbow Mansion. The housemates started working on the smallest satellites they could come up with — shoebox-size contraptions they would call Doves. Marshall eventually left NASA’s nest to start his own company, naturally inciting yet another investigation.
Here, unfortunately, Vance’s story loses some of its shape, branching into loosely connected sections covering Planet Labs, the satellite company that Marshall started, and three rocket-launching companies: Rocket Lab, Astra and Firefly. Vance secures enough access to allow him to follow the work of these companies in real time. The hope was doubtless that, as the story was being reported, a breakout star would emerge. But in journalism, as with rockets, perfect launches are rare.
Marshall’s Planet Labs is the most unequivocally successful of these ventures and thus provides the clearest story line. What starts as a series of experiments with Legos and minuscule satellites develops into a network of tiny, solar-powered satellites that blanket the earth with cameras, able to capture images of any point on earth at any time. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and Vance nicely illustrates how those images have seeped into our lives (as the source, for instance, of many satellite photos we see of the Ukraine war).
The other narratives hang together less well. Vance wrote a 2015 biography of Musk, and looming over the stories of the three rocket companies is the hope of, well, the next SpaceX. We don’t quite get there. Of the three rocket companies profiled, one, Rocket Lab, pulls off a string of launches and seems on track to deliver the goods. Meanwhile, Astra, started by another one of Worden’s protégés, is, according to Vance, mostly a flop. Dismissed by competitors as a clownish disaster that plans to lob up barely functional rockets “with the best of luck,” in one critic’s words, Astra largely lives down to its billing.
When the Heavens Went on Sale is an optimist’s book. That alone has value now, when many journalists instinctively extol the virtues of caution and red tape. Even Vance’s title is a challenge to the status quo, defying the kinds of earnest experts who can be counted on to profess dismay at the commercialisation of space.
In some of its best sections, Vance’s book is an exuberant ride, happily hopping around the Pacific Rim from Kwajalein Atoll to California, from New Zealand to Kodiak Island, revelling in the do-it-yourself ethos of the new space business. It may not completely reach its destination; between the narratives here, it’s not fully clear that the new industry has reached escape velocity. But Vance makes a good case that the new generation of space entrepreneurs has managed to set up the launchpad. Most of the mission is still ahead — but listen closely and you can start to hear the countdown.
The reviewer is an editor at The Week
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