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Space: The final frontier, or the next venture capital gold rush

Ashlee Vance's When the Heavens Went on Sale paints an inside view of orbital startups

Book review First, a disclaimer: Ashlee Vance worked for The Register in the early noughties. But he's also the chap who literally wrote the book on Elon Musk and has a new tome on the private space industry, When the Heavens Went on Sale, that's definitely food for thought.

Vance has spent the last five years examining the private space industry, and in the process, was overtaken by events in the sphere. Between 2020 and 2022, for example, the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit doubled, and will probably double again in the next year or so. This isn't all down to Musk's Starlink system.

"To put a fine point on things, space is now open for business," he writes. "The heavens – like everything else – have gone on sale."

Vance contends that the private orbital economy started on September 28, 2008, with the successful building of a low-cost rocket that could deliver into orbit. Traditional overengineered and expensive aerospace industry designs could be replaced with rockets and tiny satellites using off-the-shelf components, and the book follows four of them to eventual success or failure.

Planet Labs is a case in point. A quintessential Silicon Valley startup aiming to build a constellation of tiny satellites using standard electronics, and so tested this initially by going to the Black Rock Desert and persuading enthusiast volunteers to let them hitch a ride.

The results were enough to get funding and, after much hacking around, there's now a network of imaging satellites that send down a mosaic of the Earth's surface that's constantly updated and is used by everyone from scientists to journalists.

Don't miss... You're a fan of Vance's writing or want to hear from the author? Check out our interview with him here.

It was a traffic reporter flying over the Bay Area's Alameda island in a helicopter who spotted the rocket assembly of the then secretive Astra. The founders decided there was a market for a cheap rocket that could be fitted into a shipping container, and took over an ex-Naval facility to test rockets a few hundred feet from people's homes, but got busted.

Moving away from Silicon Valley, Vance goes to New Zealand to meet with the delightfully bonkers-sounding Peter Beck, a self-taught Kiwi rocket engineer who built an orbital biz in the most unlikely of locations. Rocket Lab has dozens of successful launches under its belt, although it had to move many operations to the US to do so.

The final case study covers Firefly Aerospace, a Ukrainian-based biz that wants a mostly reusable rocket that could eventually encroach on SpaceX's Falcon 9 platform. Due to certain unforeseen circumstances – not least Putin's illegal invasion – its situation is somewhat fluid and I suspect the editing of the final chapters went right down to the wire.

Vance puts a lot of work, and the occasional glass of Oban, into the research but also sets the tone in terms of the history of the space industry and the characters populating the space sector with plenty of direct quotes.

Certain themes do recur. NASA (particularly the Ames Research Center) and DARPA played a crucial role in developing, and in some cases funding, this new wave of startups. But the US government is also somewhat nervous about anyone being able to build and sell what's effectively an ICBM, and in some cases has taken action.

Also popping up a lot is the Black Rock Desert, south of Silicon Valley. The site first became famous for the Burning Man festival – originally a hedonistic rejection of capitalist values but now a top networking area for the tech industry. It's also a center for amateur rocketry and other folks who like to tinker with equipment and test it in an environment where no one's going to cause a fuss if it goes wrong.

Above all, many of the stories featured are classic startup tales. Groups of people from all over the world converge around a passion (or in one case get hired while blackout drunk) and work towards a common goal, sharing the highs and lows. It's these kinds of details that make this tome worth reading even if you're not into the orbital economy – yet.

Vance's When the Heavens Went on Sale itself goes on sale from May 9. ®

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