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Science

How to make a spaceship and get 'off planet' with renegades and college-dropouts

If you think private spaceflight is becoming a reality in the digital age, this is a story for you. It started when most of us were totally analog, as author Julian Guthrie tells DW's Zulfikar Abbany.

DW: A lot of the stories we hear about commercial firms in space, space exploration, rockets … if you're not paying close attention, they seem to have come out of nowhere, as if they're mere by-products of this digital, internet age of ours. But they haven't come out of nowhere, have they? There's a big group of people who have been working at this for decades.

Julian Guthrie: Well, exactly. People think that SpaceX, Blue Origin and what Boeing is doing in the United States, and Virgin Galactic, is a new phenomenon. In terms of the largeness and the promise, it is. But my book, "How to make a Spaceship" tells this amazing, entrepreneurial story, how these people take a huge amount of risk to launch an industry … the renegades, the rocket-makers, the college-dropouts, who went after this $10 million (9.2 million euros) prize, this shared dream.

You're talking about the XPrize, which was set up by Peter Diamandis.

Right. And they were aiming for a private path to space.

USA Mojave WüsteOctober 4, 2004 (Getty Images/AFP/D. Benc)

The White Knight carries SpaceShipOne as it launches for the second time to win the 2004 XPrize

So tell us more about Peter Diamandis. Because I'm interested in whether you think we wouldn't be where we are today without him and, I suppose, like-minded people?

I think he was definitely the catalyst for this. He is like the conductor of this grand orchestra, and he was inspired to launch this $10 million XPrize in 1996, because he realized he couldn't get to space through NASA, the US government program. He needed to create another way to get himself and his friends to space.

Because he wanted to be an astronaut?

Yes, he desperately wanted to be an astronaut. The book starts with Peter as a nine-year-old boy, staring, wide-eyed as Apollo 11 lands on the moon. That was a moment that transfixed people across the globe, people who were in their formative years. And he realized he couldn't get to space through NASA, so he launched this incentive competition. So I think it would not have happened, honestly, without him. In my book, I have these great scenes where Peter is meeting with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon who now has Blue Origin, he met with Elon Musk when Elon was just thinking about getting into space, and he was meeting with Richard Branson. All these people were starting to think about this in the early 2000s, and there was this kind of zeitgeist going on, where there was this inflection point in history, as I see it, where it started moving away from governmental hands and into private industry.

Julian Guthrie Autorin (Chris Hardy)

Author Julian Guthrie: "I love that spirit" of the mavericks and think-different types

It's interesting you mention Jeff Bezos, because he was one of the chapter heads of SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) university club that Peter initiated at MIT. And again … we tend to think these are simply people with a lot of time and money on their hands, who think, "Oh, I might just explore and conquer space next." But it's not really like that. It seems space has been the driving force of their businesses. Is that a fair assessment?

It is, and it's a good point. When I met Peter Diamandis I thought, "Wow, this guy is the biggest space geek I have ever met." And I say that with admiration, because he is so passionate about it. And he had to get to space. It's like it was in his marrow. He felt he had to find a way to at least advance us in getting "off-planet," or provide other options. And in talking with Richard Branson, he had those similar dreams, although maybe not as much of a die-hard space geek as Peter was, and you have Elon who has a more pragmatic approach to getting "off-planet." Peter is also pragmatic, but Elon's approach is more "back up the biosphere, humans are going to destroy this planet and we need to have an[other] alternative!" And Jeff Bezos was a space geek just like Peter. They are cut from the same [cloth], for sure. Jeff was intent on doing everything he could to build a fortune to get to space.

Weltraumtourismus Projektskizze Spaceport America (picture-alliance/dpa/Spaceport America)

Is the future of private spaceflight here? This is an artist impression of "Spaceport America"

As you explain in the book, Peter has these moments where he realizes you need a prize to create incentive, that it creates the competition that's needed for people to invest more than they are ever going to win out of a prize. How strong is that community in the United States - this idea of moving things out of government control? Because we're now in the Trump-era, and Trump is, in a way, the anti-government government. So how strong is that community?

Oh, I think it speaks to American boot-strapism at its core, it speaks to rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself ... although there were contenders for the XPrize from the UK, Argentina, from Russia for a period. ... So that scrappy, entrepreneurialism is not contained to the United States, but it's what built the greatest industries in the United States. It wasn't the government. It was these small teams working in garages, in back-shops. That's where Amazon was launched, where Apple was launched, Hewlett-Packard and Harley-Davidson, ... all of these companies, where there is so much creativity. The people I write about in this book are the outliers. They are mavericks, the think-different types, maybe working in obscurity. They're not going to work for governmental programs, they want to do things themselves, they want to blaze their own trails. And I love that spirit. It's almost of the American West. And it's a spirit that is thriving today with this commercial space industry. But it's really what built this country and created the greatest technologies. It wasn't the government. It was these teams of individuals.

But [Peter has] an awakening that it has to be both. It has to be this private-public partnership, where you get these genius ideas, often from those outliers - like Burt Rutan, Dumitru Popescu, Steve Bennett - but you need some kind of partnership with the government when it gets to this level, certainly when it comes to space. You know, Elon Musk … his most important partner today is NASA.

Julian Guthrie is the author of "How to make a Spaceship - A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight." It is published by Bantam Press / Penguin Random House.

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