Who Are the Space Renegades That Paved the Way for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

Writing and Journalism

It seems ‘a-ha!’ moments might be contagious. Journalist Julian Guthrie’s latest book, How to Make a Spaceship, sprang from an interview she did with Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which designs and launches large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

In this interview, Diamandis told her of an a-ha moment he had back in 1993: he was reading The Spirit of St. Louis and realized that 25-year-old American aviator Charles Lindbergh didn't make his historic 1927 non-stop flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France as a publicity stunt; he did it to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. A light-bulb switched on, and the X PRIZE foundation was born out of Diamandis’ desire to adopt the incentive model that kick-started the golden age of aviation, and apply it to the space age.

This recount by Diamandis spurred on a surge of creativity that resulted in Guthrie’s new book, where she asks the question: what fuels great leaps of invention? The answer it seems is renegades, mavericks, competition, and both inspiration and detachment from the government.

The magic of NASA in the 1960s was an example of the government at its best. The space program ignited imagination and curiosity in the public, and in just eight years it successfully launched man to the moon. But as all things do, NASA’s missions got more complicated and costly. By the late 1980s, the Challenger space shuttle had been destroyed in flight and killed all seven crew members, and Mars was being described as “a trillion dollars away”. Space exploration seemed unsafe, which disenfranchised the public, and absurdly expensive, which disenfranchised independent inventors.

Then came the Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight, which was opened in 1996, where X PRIZE offered a $10 million incentive to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space – but here was the catch: they had to do it twice, safely, within two weeks. Guthrie’s book tells the story of the 26 teams that participated, from all over the world, ranging from amateur hobbyists, to a toothpaste factory worker, to corporate-sponsored super teams and how, after eight years (the magic number), a winner crossed the finish line with a comparatively low-cost solution to space flight.

What was the genius of this incentive model? Guthrie explains several factors: small teams often have more ingenuity and freedom than large bureaucratic institutions; some of the most brilliant minds want nothing to do with the government; unconventional resumes like former hackers and off-the-grid inventors bring unexpected ideas from all disciplines (Lindberg himself was a total nobody until he won the Orteig Prize), and lastly: money and ego are powerful motivators.

Some of humanity’s greatest innovations – such as railroads and personal computers – did not involve the government. Sometimes it’s faster for a free-agent maverick to make innovative leaps than a weighty industry giant. Guthrie’s How To Make a Spaceship is a compelling, adventurous tale – which is the only way you get Richard Branson to write the preface and Stephen Hawking to pen the afterword.

Julian Guthrie’s book is How to Make a Spaceship: A Band Of Renegades, An Epic Race, And The Birth Of Private Spaceflight.

  • Transcript


Julian Guthrie: I came to the story, this book, originally through an interview that I did with Peter Diamandis for the San Francisco Chronicle. And I asked him this seemingly simple question of how did this whole XPrize thing start. And he said, "Well, how much do you know about the private space flight prize?" And I said, "Not so much." So he started telling me and I'm like oh my god that is an amazing story.

So Peter, when he was reading The Spirit of St. Louis in late 1993, he's reading this book and he lands on this passage where he realizes that Lindbergh didn't fly as a stunt in 1927 but he indeed flew to win this $25,000 prize. And it was an ah-ha moment for him or for sure to take a page from the golden age of aviation when after Lindbergh flew it really sparked this commercial airline industry. All of a sudden every day folks thought that commercial air travel was safe so Peter thought he could use that model, that incentive prize model to spur innovation and spur breakthroughs in spaceflight. So that was really it. And the incentive prize model also has a habit of attracting kind of these off the grid think different types who wouldn't necessarily do anything that is affiliated with the government, who work in small teams, who like to innovate or tinker or they're kind of the hackers or the makers or the tinkers of today. So it seems to attract those types and it has throughout history. People didn't think Lindbergh, who was 25 years old when he made this flight, and no one thought that he would be able to make that momentous flight, which after he landed in Paris made him the most famous man on earth.

Throughout history there have been the greatest innovations, which did not involve the government. Whether it's the railroads, whether it's the personal computer, and whether it's with this space milestone that was made, you know, the government actually set Peter on this quest of his to create a private path to space because it was the magic of NASA in the 1960s that first captivated his attention and the attention of so many people, including many of the folks who I interviewed for my book. That Apollo 11 landing in July 1969 it transfixed them and it set people on this path of the desire to get to space. It was a moment in history when technological breakthroughs were really at their peak. I mean what was achieved in eight years from the time this moon mission was announced by President Kennedy to the time man first set foot on another celestial body it was an incredible show of ingenuity and determination and bravery really.

So that was the government at its best. And then private industry, Peter's idea, going back to this particular space prize, was that where NASA had a left off NASA had gotten very big. NASA had gotten very – programs had gotten very, very costly. The space shuttle mission was exorbitantly expensive. It was not as safe as everyone would have wished. The belief was that these small teams, these kind of maverick individuals could then step in. And now it's interesting because NASA is Elon Musk's biggest provider, contractor. But I think that once SpaceX, once Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, once Virgin Galactic, once these flights become much more routine then you're going to see it moving back away from the government and more toward the private citizen so the Peter Diamandis' of the world are actually going to get to fly.

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Big Think Edge helps organizations get smarter, faster by catalyzing conversation around the topics most critical to 21st century business success. Led by the world’s foremost experts, our dynamic learning programs are short-form, mobile, and immediately actionable.