Space entrepreneurship, buy the book
“When Gary [Hudson] told me he’d never been interested in the past or even in the present, that he’d only been interested in the future, I should have been scared but I wasn’t, and I should have asked questions but I didn’t,” writes Elizabeth Weil at the beginning of They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus, when she meets Hudson for the first time in the fall of 1997. (The book takes its cumbersome title from the first line of the George and Ira Gershwin song “They All Laughed” that was played at a 1997 X Prize gala described early in the book.) The sentence is a foreshadowing of the trials and tribulations at Rotary that Weil would witness in the years to come.
Weil followed Rotary for two years, spending time with Hudson and Rotary employees as they worked to develop the Roton. This access allowed her to see both the financial and technical challenges the company faced trying to develop an entirely new, different launch vehicle on a very limited budget. She also met with one of Rotary’s major investors, Walt Anderson; one chapter of the book is basically a sidebar about Anderson and another of his investments, MirCorp.
This sort of access would, ideally, have allowed the author to provide a detailed examination of Rotary and dissect what went wrong. Unfortunately, the slim volume (barely exceeding 200 pages even with the chapter-long tangent about MirCorp) doesn’t go into near enough detail that an interested observer would want to know. There is very little technical discussion at all in the book, no photos, and only a few extremely simple illustrations early in the book. As a result, those looking for more details about the ascent and demise of Rotary may be disappointed: while Weil takes us behind the scenes of the company, we’re whisked away before we’ve had the chance to do more get a glance how the company worked, and what went wrong.
Weil instead focuses on the human story, fleshing out the characters of the people involved from Hudson and Anderson down to the low-level technicians working on the vehicle. This can be useful, but Weil turns up the magnification too high, looking for and expounding upon the little quirks in each person: from an interest in anti-aging medicines to a penchant for skateboards and tattoos to a hobby of homemade model rocketry. When you put anyone’s personality under a microscope you will find quirks and flaws that, if magnified, can make even a “normal” person look weird. While the people of Rotary are certainly not normal (who is?) they are not the eccentrics that Weil makes them out to be.
There is also a question about the accuracy of the book. When the book was published last fall it was roundly criticized in discussions on Usenet newsgroups and elsewhere. People who had been directly involved with the company or were otherwise familiar with the inner workings of Rotary have claimed that the book is rife with errors and inaccuracies. It’s impossible from this vantage point to judge how true those claims are, but the book did go largely undefended in these online forums.
It’s clear that They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus is marketed for a more general audience. This is an unfortunate choice, since general audiences are far less likely to be interested in the inner workings of a commercial space company than a more advanced, technically savvy niche audience. It’s not clear that Weil had the expertise—or the willingness to ask detailed questions, as she herself noted—to write a more detailed book in any case. The result is a book that attempts to trace the trajectory of Rotary, but leaves many questions unanswered.