Review of WHEN THE HEAVENS WENT ON SALE
The space race beyond Elon and SpaceX
When you think about space flight beyond NASA, usually the first thing to come to mind is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. After all, SpaceX has an incredibly famous founder, got a passenger rocket into space in record time, and regularly takes NASA astronauts on space missions. Unfortunately, SpaceX and Elon suck up all the non-NASA space news, so much so that I had little knowledge of what the private space industry has looked like in the past 15 years.
Enter Ashlee Vance and his latest book: When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach. Vance shows you just how busy the race to open up space is, and some of the major companies inventing a whole new space industry.
The cold war was the prime of space technology in the US… until Elon Musk founded SpaceX and showed that space travel could be made into a non-governmental operation. But space continues to be expensive. Launches along cost millions, and building a safe and functioning rocket ship can cost billions. For a long time space was out of reach, but today, the space market is booming, filled with numerous companies building small satellites and small rockets that is bringing a revolution in technology to earth.
When the Heavens Went On Sale is not about SpaceX but rather four other companies that have something interesting to say about the state of the new space industry: Planet Labs, Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly. Each part of the book profiles one company, the result of five years of research, travel, and interviews by Vance.
Planet Labs is building tiny, shorter-lived satellites that are capable of taking pictures of every spot on earth – over 4 million photos a year. By putting a constellation of satellites in the sky, they form a network that allows for pattern tracking and nearly daily updates on any spot on earth that someone wants to know about. But this also requires small rockets capable of regular launching of satellites into low earth orbit: enter the companies that are building tiny rockets to do just that.
Vance profiles three companies making small rockets, and they couldn’t be more different despite similar goals. Rocket Lab (easily the most impressive) builds precision engineered rockets that launched perfectly on the first try – not even SpaceX did that with their first small rocket. Then there is Astra who seems to have a problem of making rockets that don’t explode. And then there is Firefly which seems like it just shouldn’t be building rockets. It’s a fascinating bunch and wildly interesting to look into how different companies are going about opening up space for business.
When the Heavens Went On Sale was a phenomenal book – I devoured it. Vance has a casual and entertaining writing style making it an easy book to keep on reading. I think the book could have dropped the last section on Firefly and not have lost much at all, but the other companies were great to learn about. I had no idea so much has been happening in the space industry beyond SpaceX and this is an excellent book for those that want to learn what’s happening.
Published: May 2023
Publisher: Ecco Books
Format: Advanced Galley courtesy of Ecco
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance (2015)
The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley by Jimmy Soni (2022) | Read my review
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