What’s the story of our era that will be remembered in a thousand years? It won’t be the creation of the modern mobile phone or the rise of social media. Nor will it be the unlikely election of a vulgar property magnate, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or “woke” corporations. The rise of computer intelligence, the invention of gene editing, and the development of nuclear fusion are up there. But the most likely candidate? The rise of private space travel.
As we go about our day-to-day lives, billionaires flinging rockets into space seems largely irrelevant, particularly compared to whatever latest developments have occurred in the political world and economic markets. Yet politicians are getting better intel than ever from new satellites, fired into orbit at a faster-than-ever rate courtesy of SpaceX and Rocket Lab. Investors use imagery from Planet Labs satellites to predict changes in oil prices, and farmers use it to monitor their coffee plants. When you flip open—or scroll though—the New York Times and see aerial photos of obliterated Ukrainian towns, they’re from those same satellites. Which are made by hippies living in a Los Angeles commune, sent up by a New Zealand rocket company founded by a frizzle-haired nerd who never went to college. The explosive follies of these dreamers, billionaires, and hard-working space nerds could eventually make us an interplanetary species. In the meantime, they are fundamentally changing the way we live, even if we’re not actively aware.
That’s the topic of Ashlee Vance’s When the Heavens Went on Sale; a thrilling, hilarious romp through this new space economy. While Musk’s SpaceX opens the book, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic make cameos, Vance focuses on the lesser-known founders and companies, and they more than meet Musk’s standard for technical ambition and personal eclecticism.
There’s the perpetually spontaneous “space hippy” Will Marshall; the Kiwi engineering-wiz-turned-mad-scientist Peter Beck; the smooth-talking Chris Kemp and laconic Adam London; the providence-driven rocket scientist, Tom Markusic, and his whiskey-downing Ukrainian internet billionaire sponsor, Max Polyakov; and the grouchy elder statesman Pete Worden, who constantly clashed with his bureaucratic NASA superiors and made much of this industry possible. They each get their own section of the book, which seems readymade for an HBO adaptation.
The story is told from Vance’s perspective, but he notes at the start that he has “let the characters speak in their own voices and at length throughout the book,” going so far that several chapters consist almost entirely of their monologuing quotes. What seemed like a lazy choice is actually buoyed by the strength of these characters, and hearing Chris Kemp, dressed in a “bedazzled” all-black jumpsuit, complain about bureaucracy while driving an unregistered BMW convertible to a “Dawn of Space” party is pure glee. Kemp has the book’s best quote, referring to a hippie family that lives near their Kodiak launch site as “statistically insignificant.”
Vance is witty and conversational without treating his subject flippantly, and his clear love for this story, and the people in it, makes it easy to dive deep. It’s the perfect tone for a business as complex and difficult, yet improbable and absurd, as this. His position as an amused, interested outsider makes it extremely gripping.
Despite the expression, rocket science is the relatively easy part of the business, whereas rocket engineering—actually getting the things to fly as intended—is the slow, tough, costly bit. By Vance’s telling, it’s an endless drudgery of tiny inexactitudes causing enormous spiraling problems, with each fix pushing another crucial piece out of joint. Imagine playing Jenga with 100,000 Jell-O pieces, and if the tower falls over, the whole thing explodes, and you have to spend tens of millions making all the pieces again. Not only is building the rockets hard, but you can only build, test, and launch them from remote and often inhospitable areas.
Making rockets work is almost as difficult as making money with rockets, and the odd economics of space are a constant theme throughout the book. Space startups bring venture capitalism to its riskiest, most costly extremes, where you just keep burning millions until something works, then raise ever more money to burn, and then—in some further uncertain future—start turning a profit. It’s hardly surprising that the weird finances of space met the ever weirder, surreal finances of the 2021 special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) craze, where wiley venture capitalists hawked empty shell companies to retail investors, promising huge returns before they’d even announced what company they’d be buying. TruthSocial was launched through one of these. Within one year, 613 SPAC initial public offerings raised more than $162 billion; but, like their rockets, most of these have since blown up.
Government involvement is an enormous part of the story, but Vance wisely keeps his finger off the ideological scale, and the book’s libertarian, anti-bureaucratic bent is a natural result of the context. This is an industry that needs government intervention—as Peter Beck explains, the only critical difference between a rocket and an ICBM is the payload—but bureaucratic handholding could prove a death knell. The need for haste allows the rocket industry to frequently break through bureaucracy and speed things up; but throughout the book, you also see how unfair this feels to bystanders, with far lower stakes, whose lives are held up by it. There’s something galling about a spaceport being rapidly built while its Māori farmer neighbors continue to wait for planning permission on their homes, or a New Zealand lobbyist who “spent his entire political career trying to remove a tariff off an apple,” only to watch Beck race cross-border deals through in mere months. As Chris Kemp succinctly puts it to Vance, “Rockets are easy compared to the DMV.”
Government intervention becomes the front-and-center bad guy in Chapter 4, where unfounded suspicion of the Ukrainian billionaire Polyakov leads to NASA forcing him to sell his stake in an American company he poured $200 million into. According to Vance, the government didn’t have any case against him, aside from the fact he was foreign, from a country formerly part of the Soviet Union, and thus unsettlingly close to Russia. The ignorance, bigotry, and pointlessness of this anti-Eastern European suspicion was obvious enough when Vance was doing his reporting in 2021, but it’s even more glaring given what has transpired since. As he writes in the epilogue, Polyakov’s knowledge of space gave his country a crucial advantage in early stages of Russia’s invasion.
When the Heavens Went on Sale isn’t flawless. It doesn’t have the transcendent prose of some writers, and Vance’s fondness for the word “s—” sometimes veers into juvenile excess. He can also be unnecessarily, unintentionally repetitive; be it using the same rough structure in each section, or repeating similar turns of phrase, as though the “FedEx of space” business model wasn’t already explained in a previous chapter.
However, these are but brief glitches in an otherwise great book. In his prologue, Vance sets the stratospheric expectations for the book to follows:
“I’ve had a front-row seat in which to observe this peculiar moment in our shared history unfold. … There have been late nights spent in grimy warehouses with engineers trying to ignite their rocket engines for the first time all the way up to glorious rocket launches from South American jungles. There have been private jets, communes, gun-toting bodyguards, hallucinogens, a troop of male strippers, a rotting whale carcass in a bathtub, espionage investigations and federal raids, space hippies, and multimillionaires guzzling booze to dull the pain as their fortunes disappear.”
With jet-powered motorbikes, unlicensed BMW convertibles, and frequent factory break-ins, Vance more than meets, and exceeds, this.
I opened this review with the kind of prediction that doubtlessly will age poorly—I pre-emptively apologize to The Dispatch’s 3023 Martian readers—and that interstellar future may never come to pass. However, if it does, it would mean Vance will likely have written the only 2023 book that will be remembered in that distant future, documenting our first wobbly steps toward the infinite.