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


Edited by Scott Moyers

How a historic race gave birth to private space flight

Alone in a Spartan black cockpit, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed toward space. He had eighty seconds to exceed the speed of sound and begin the climb to a target no civilian pilot had ever reached. There was a chance he would not come back alive. If he did, he would make history as the world’s first commercial astronaut.

The spectacle defied reason, the result of an improbable contest dreamed up by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, whose vision for a new race to space – requiring small teams to do what only the world’s largest governments had done before – had been dismissed as fantastical.

The tale begins in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Diamandis was the son of hard working Greek immigrants who wanted their science prodigy to do the family proud and become a doctor. Peter was a dutiful son, but from the time he was eight years old, staying up late to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon, he had one goal: getting to space. He started a national student space club while at MIT. He launched a rocket company in Houston while getting a medical degree from Harvard – a degree he pursued to improve his chances of becoming an astronaut. But when he realized NASA was winding down manned space flight, Diamandis set out on one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time. If the government wouldn’t send him to space, he would create a private spaceflight industry and get there himself.

In the 1990s, the idea of private space flight was the stuff of science fiction. The undaunted Diamandis found inspiration in an unlikely place: the first golden age of aviation. Reading Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis, Diamandis was stunned that the aviator had attempted the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris to win a $25,000 prize. The historic flight galvanized the commercial airline industry. Why, Diamandis thought, couldn’t a similar contest be held for space flight? In 1996, standing under the arch of St. Louis – the city where Lindbergh found his backers – Diamandis announced the $10 million Xprize. To win, a privately funded team would have to build and fly a manned rocket into space twice – in two weeks. The deadline: December 31, 2004.

On a brilliant morning in the Mojave Desert, with little time to spare, a bullet-shaped rocket called SpaceShipOne was launched. The story of SS1, and other scrappy teams in the hunt – all spurred by Diamandis as he struggled to keep the prize afloat – became a testament to the American spirit of ingenuity and oversized dreams. The winning of the Xprize marked the end of the government’s monopoly over space.

Julian Guthrie, author of The Billionaire and The Mechanic, an acclaimed bestselling account of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s pursuit of the America’s Cup, thought she knew about obsessive pursuits, but the XPrize race spurred another level of drama, sacrifice, and technical wizardry. With Diamandis’ cooperation, Guthrie had access to all of the players – from Richard Branson and John Carmack to Burt Rutan – and has melded their stories into a spellbinding narrative, a combination of Rocket Boys and The New New Thing. In the end, as Diamandis dreamed, the result wasn’t just a victory for one team; it was the foundation for a new industry, including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and others. Today, SpaceShipOne hangs in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, above the Apollo 11 capsule and next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis plane.

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Praise

“Guthrie has a gift of building suspense around these airborne incidents of inherent drama — such as a balloon flight gone wildly wrong that ends in a botched parachute jump — as well as larger questions about space, technology and life’s purpose . . . “How to Make a Spaceship” is . . . ultimately flight-worthy and impressively ambitious. When the history of 21st century American space efforts is written decades or centuries from now, this book will be a valuable contemporary record of what it was like when humanity was trying to break out of its home.” San Francisco Chronicle

“[How to Make a Spaceship] reads like a thriller. The story sounds incredible, as if torn from the pages of science fiction. And it has a happy ending. But as with all entrepreneurial ventures, nothing went according to plan: It was riddled with failure and disappointment; ugly battles broke out between friends and founders; the world often looked like it was coming to an end; and Diamandis had to gamble everything he had. Most interesting was an observation that [Richard] Branson made in the book’s foreword: There isn’t much of a difference between being an adventurer and an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, you push the limits and try to protect the downside. As an adventurer, you push the limits, and protect the downside — which can be your life.”—Vivkek Wadhwa, Washington Post

“If you admire those who aim really high, How to Make a Spaceship belongs on your bookshelf. [It] offers a rousing anthem to the urge to explore.”Wall Street Journal

 

“[How to Make a Spaceship] includes enough death-defying stunts, madcap schemes, wild coincidences, and rousing redemptive moments to fuel a dozen Hollywood blockbusters.”—Wired.com

“If readers are looking for scientific discussions, humorous anecdotes, and intense action, Guthrie covers those. The flights are written to make readers feel like they’re experiencing them in real time, nerves and all.”—Publishers Weekly

Engaging… Just the thing for aspiring astronauts and rocketeers.”—Kirkus

“I don’t know how Julian Guthrie does it. In her last book, she didn’t race in the America’s Cup, yet readers felt they had. And now in How to Make a Spaceship, although she wasn’t strapped into the cockpit of the first civilian spacecraft to rocket into outer space, her vivid writing places readers right there. With the flair of a novelist and the precision of a fine journalist, she takes readers on a journey not just into space but into the hearts and minds of the adventurers who dare go where NASA no longer does. Her tale will quicken your pulse.” —Ken Auletta, author of Googled: The End of the World as We Know It

“The story of Peter Diamandis is a reminder of the power of passion and persistence. How to Make a Spaceship chronicles the amazing journey of a key figure in the private race to space—a dreamer who, in the face of multiple setbacks and naysayers, simply refused to let go of his dream.” —Arianna Huffington, author, cofounder of The Huffington Post

“Too few kids and young adults understand the power of science and technology. We need role models demonstrating the power of passion and perseverance to make dreams come true. How to Make a Spaceship is filled with innovators and doers. The story will inspire makers of all ages.” —Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur, founder of FIRST Robotics

“This incredible book is The Right Stuff with afterburners. Intrepid designers and innovators risk their reputations. Gutsy test pilots risk their lives. Explorers push new boundaries of what so many once thought was impossible. All brought together by a real gravity-defying force, Peter Diamandis. How to Make a Spaceship is required reading for anyone who cares about space, aviation, and the future of flight.” —Captain Mark Kelly (USN, Ret.), former naval aviator, test pilot, and NASA astronaut

“This outstanding and compelling book shows the power of one man’s vision, and the ability of small teams to accomplish extraordinary things.  How to Make a Spaceship will inspire and guide you to take on your own Moonshot.” —Ray Kurzweil, Inventor, Author, Futurist and Chancellor, Singularity University”

Author Q&A

Excerpt

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