Michael Belfiore's book, Rocketeers - How a visionary band of business leaders, engineers, and pilots is boldly privatizing space, answers just what the subheading asks.
It begins with the thing that started this latest, and most successful round of private enterprise's struggle to commercialize space, the Ansari X Prize, known to most simply as the X Prize. More specifically, Peter Diamandis wanted to go to space, so he had to encourage the search for more ways of getting there. Inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize of 1919 that challenged someone to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, and that was won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, Diamandis came up with a similar space-related challenge. In 1995 he created the X Prize, valued at $10,000,000, for the first non-governmental entity to fly at least 62 miles (100 kilometers) high and back twice within two weeks with the same spaceship.
In the book we learn that in the ensuing years, many took up the challenge: Brian Feeney who intended to launch a rocket from a balloon, Jim Akkerman, a retired NASA propulsion engineer, John Carmack of the video game Doom fame and his Armadillo Aerospace (still going strong), and others for a total of twenty-six teams.
The winner, in 2004, was legendary airplane designer, Burt Rutan with his company, Scaled Composites. It turns out that Rutan was already working on just such a project when he'd heard of the X Prize. Rutan is such a fascinating person with an interesting history that the Belfiore devotes a chapter to his background before spending another chapter leading us through the building and testing, and finally the famed flights that won the prize.
But the X Prize didn't just result in novel ways of hopping up to space and back. It also showed NASA what private enterprise could do when left largely on its own and with little money. And it happened just in time for NASA. In 2004 President Bush directed NASA with new, challenging goals such as a to return the moon. But NASA also had to continue sending cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). To do the new big stuff, they would need help with the old stuff. And the X Prize showed NASA that it could maybe get private enterprise to take over that old stuff, leaving it to go the the moon.
In the book we find out that the first private enterprise company to work with NASA in this way was t/Space lead by space visionary David Gump. t/Space was going to make a crewed rocket that would be carried part of the way up below an aircraft, released, and then fly the rest of the way to the ISS on its own rocket power. t/Space failed to do this but it succeeded in changing the way NASA worked.
In the meantime, Diamandis continued looking for ways to inspire through the X Prize Foundation and formed the Rocket Racing League, which would have rocket powered aircraft race around a track while spectators looked on, much like watching a car race. The rockets were made by XCOR who'd provided the rocket for Burt Rutan's Ansari X Prize winning spaceship.
Belfiore then turns the book to the attempts at creating a space tourist industry where the tourists would be flown up for a quick hop to the edge of space, 62 miles (100 kilometers) and back, yet another thing that arose from the Ansari X Prize. We learn of Rocketplane Kistler's Rocketplane XP, built starting with a Learjet fuselage, the much better known SpaceShipTwo to be used by Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's company, New Shepard from the company Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos founder of Amazon.com, and Armadillo Aerospace which had competed in the Ansari X Prize.
Next we meet SpaceX, Elon Musk's company that's building the Falcon rockets, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9. Though at the time of the writing of this book (2008) the Falcon 9 hadn't yet left the drawing board. Belfiore gives background on Musk and spends time with the engineers as they test the Merlin engine to be used in the Falcon rockets. SpaceX's Falcon 9 is now (2011) in the process of testing for use in sending cargo to the ISS for NASA.
The next space visionary we meet is Robert Bigelow, wealthy Las Vegas businessman who'd made his fortune in real estate and with his Budget Suites of America. Bigelow's company, Bigelow Aerospace, is building inflatable modules for sending to space to make up space stations and even plans to send some to the moon as lunar habitats. Just two of his BA-330 modules have more room inside than the entire ISS. It looks like Belfiore had spent a lot of time with Bigelow because we get a fascinating, personal look at his upbringing, business career and what lead him on his current path.
The book then starts to wind down with chapters about the new spaceports being built in the Mojave Dessert, California and in New Mexico. We get a good look at the town of Mojave where so much of aviation history was made.
Belfiore ends the book on a speculative look at the year 2034, where we ride on maglev trains to spaceports to board rockets to take quick trips to the edge of space while we cross the oceans in ninety minutes instead of the better part of a day. Using the same rockets, Fed-Ex offers same-day package delivery anywhere in the world within an air-taxi's range of a spaceport. Also, much of the world's power is generated in space using solar arrays and then transmitted to Earth.
Prior to reading this book, I'd underestimated the affect the X-Prize had on the current boom in private enterprise in space, thinking it's only result would be future tourist rockets making short hops to space and back. Now I see it was a strong driving force behind most everything else that's happened to.
Definitely a good read.
For where I think the story will go from here have a look at my own predictions of the path to space.