The Space Barons, by Christian Davenport, a Washington Post reporter, is an exciting narrative filled with colorful reporting and sharp insights. The book sparkles because of Davenport’s access to the main players and his talent for crisp storytelling.
Davenport displays his reporting and storytelling skills. His writing is tight and, suitably for the subject matter, propulsive. He fleshes out the main protagonists with fine character vignettes. Davenport has to finesse the fact that Amazon founder and CEO Bezos is his boss, as the owner of The Post, but he generally steers clear of hagiography ... The narrative is drenched in testosterone. Women make up 1 in 3 professional scientists and 1 in 5 professional engineers, but there are few women to be found in the pages of The Space Barons ... Davenport chronicles the twists and turns as well as he can, but the narrative is so dense at times that it becomes a blur.
Davenport, a reporter at the Washington Post, celebrates the burgeoning private space industry, which now regularly launches payloads into orbit, but he devotes the bulk of his book to Musk and the Amazon founder, and their grander ambitions. Heeding the conventions mandated by this kind of narrative nonfiction, Davenport makes Bezos and Musk contrasting figures as he tries to create drama from their rivalry ... Like Davenport, many Americans have come to accept the notion of corporate superiority as an article of faith. Accordingly, NASA is too cautious; NASA is too bureaucratic; NASA is wasteful; NASA has too many regulations ... With its gee-whiz hyperbole and its portentious declarative sentences ('This time he would punch back'), The Space Barons itself feels like a twentieth-century artifact, from an age of more predictable journalism.The book ends with a characteristically vapid sentence fragment that describes the Bezos-Musk competition: 'A race past even their own imaginations, deep into the cosmos, to a point in the beyond where there was no finish line.' But this kind of sentimentality isn’t getting anyone to Mars.
Davenport catches us up in the breathless excitement of these men who are trying to launch the biggest start-up in the history of the galaxy. But this is no puff piece; the author faithfully records the heartbreaking failures and the struggles to overcome serious opposition (from the U.S. government, among others). This is, too, a story of ego and the aggressive pursuit of number-one status, and the author does a fine job of capturing the personalities of these famous men. A big story, told through its vividly evoked small details.
In short, both books [The Space Barons and Rocket Billionaires are outstanding summaries of this century's progress in spaceflight, especially spaceflight driven by private enterprise. The main problem that both books have is the same problem that most books about technology have: they spend 90% of the time discussing the past and only 10% discussing the future. You'd think that books about cutting edge technology would focus a bit more on the future ... However ... They're both outstanding books.
Readers frustrated at the trickle of news from China (the only nation with an active manned space program) will thrill at this lucid, detailed, and admiring account of wealthy space buffs who are spending their own money, making headlines, producing genuine technical advances, and resurrecting the yearning to explore the cosmos.