The rollout of Rotary Rocket's Roton ATV prototype in March 1999. (credit: Rotary Rocket Company)
Space entrepreneurship, buy the book
by Jeff Foust
Monday, March 10, 2003
They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus: An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship
By Elizabeth Weil
Bantam Books, 2002
Hardcover, 230 pp.
Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them
By Paula Berinstein
Medford Press, 2002
The late 1990s have become synonymous with the “dot-com” era, when many tens of billions of dollars in venture capital were poured into thousands of startup companies, each promising to use the Internet in general, and the Web in particular, to generate bounties of riches in vast assortment of ways. What most of these companies lacked, though, were valid business plans that showed how those investments would generate revenues and, eventually, profits. Instead, dot-com startups used bizarre currencies of mindshare, eyeballs, and stickiness. When the stream of VC funding tried up at the turn of the century, the startups realized how worthless their currencies were; most are now defunct.
At the same time as the dot-com boom, a similar, albeit much smaller, entrepreneurial renaissance was taking place in aerospace. A number of small startups emerged in the mid-1990s chasing a holy grail that had eluded past generations of engineers and entrepreneurs: affordable commercial access to space. These companies had tied their fortunes to the prospects of constellations of communications satellites like Iridium that would generate a huge spike in launch demand. However, when Iridium and other firms could not compete with terrestrial alternatives, the bottom fell out of the launch market, and took with it—at least for the near future—hopes of building fleets of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) that could open the doors to other commercial markets.
|Space companies struggled because they had too little money to execute their business plans; dot-coms failed because they had too much money to worry about executing a viable business plan.|
There is an irresistible tendency to draw parallels between the dot-com boom and the commercial space boom. There is a superficial similarity in the boom-bust cycles of the two, but beyond that there are many differences. Dot-com startups had no difficulty raising capital during the peak of the boom; in fact, they attracted so much funding VCs were left with little else to fund other ventures, including space companies. Rather than the tends of billions raised by dot-coms, rocket companies (other than Kistler Aerospace, which reportedly raised several hundred million) made do with tens of millions, at best. Space companies struggled because they had too little money to execute their business plans; dot-coms failed because they had too much money to worry about executing a viable business plan.
While the boom-and-bust of the dot-coms has been fodder for dozens of books, far less has been written to date about the RLV boom and its post-Iridium aftermath. Two recent books make an attempt to explore the issue of affordable commercial space access, as well as the broader issue of space commercialization. Elizabeth Weil’s They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at one of the more prominent RLV companies from the late 1990s, Rotary Rocket Company. Making Space Happen, by Paula Berinstein, looks at the broader topic of commercial space activities, from space tourism to lunar exploration, and the people trying to make those concepts a reality.
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