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Diamandis and Greason
Peter Diamandis (left) has been likened to The Man Who Sold the Moon’s D.D. Harriman; Jeff Greason (right) found his inspiration in another Heinlein novel. (credit: J. Foust)

D.D. Harriman versus Dan Davis

One of the best-known and loved characters in the canon of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein is Delos David Harriman. The protagonist of the famous novella The Man Who Sold the Moon and the short story “Requiem” (set after the events of The Man Who Sold the Moon but actually published before), D.D. Harriman ranks up with Lazarus Long and Valentine Michael Smith as among the most popular of Heinlein’s many characters. Harriman is particularly endeared by the advocates of space commercialization, who see him as something of a role model. (See “Heinlein’s ghost”, part 1 and part 2, The Space Review, April 9 and 16, 2007)

And what a role model. Harriman is driven by a monomaniacal focus on traveling to—and ultimately profiting from—the Moon, undeterred by all those who say it’s not technically or financially feasible. In The Man Who Sold the Moon, he goes to great lengths, including some measures of questionable ethics, to find the money needed for a manned mission to the Moon, and to defuse any political complications that might arise. He pits companies against each other for sponsorship and raises money from anyone and everyone who has any. He is ultimately successful in getting a mission to the Moon, which, as he predicted, generates interest in and funding of more missions. It is, though, a hollow victory for him: the shareholders in his company keep Harriman himself from going to the Moon, saying that he is too vital to the company to risk taking such a flight (he eventually does go, though, as an elderly man in “Requiem”.)

It’s easy to see, then, why Harriman is so well regarded by the entrepreneurial space community: he had a vision for commercial spaceflight and went to great lengths to raise the money to make it possible. More than a few people have suggested that what the space industry needs today are visionaries with the drive and fundraising talents of Harriman.

“I have to tell you, the most difficult thing I had to do was raise the money,” Diamandis said of his work on the original X Prize.

No person today is a perfect analogue for Harriman: many of the pioneers of NewSpace are either funding their companies out of their own considerable personal wealth or have sought funding from more traditional channels, be it angel or institutional investors. The one person who might be the closest to Harriman is Peter Diamandis, the founder of a number of space-related ventures, most notably the X Prize Foundation. Indeed, Diamandis’ keynote talk at the Heinlein Centennial conference in Kansas City in July was titled “Peter Diamandis: D.D. Harriman?”

In that speech, Dimandis discussed the difficulties he encountered when trying to raise the $10-million purse for the original X Prize. “I have to tell you, the most difficult thing I had to do was raise the money,” he said in his speech.

A key aspect of the X Prize when it was announced in 1996, he said, was “supercredibility”: “When something is announced in the right fashion,” he explained, “people automatically believe it’s succeeded.” And, initially, it worked: “No one asked me if we had the money, which we did not,” he said, to laughter.

It turned out, of course, that despite that veneer of “supercredibility” it was much harder than he anticipated to raise the money. Conventional sources only got him so far, and many others remained on the sidelines, unsure about the viability of this prize venture (the “X” in X Prize, he reminded he audience, was originally intended to be a placeholder until a naming sponsor stepped up.) “I could not for the life of me find the money,” he said.

Eventually he was able to get the prize purse funded with a Harriman-like move: rather than raise the full $10 million, he used the smaller amount raised to pay the premium for a “hole-in-one” insurance policy: if a team won the prize competition by the end of 2004, the insurer, XL Insurance, would pay out the prize purse. Even that approach, which was ultimately successful, had its pitfalls. “About two months after the June 21 [SpaceShipOne] flight and before the September flights, the XL Insurance people called me and said, ‘Can we try and renegotiate this?’” he recalled. “I’m not kidding.”

With the success of what became the Ansari X Prize, money is now less of a concern for the X Prize Foundation, which has branched out into other fields, from automobiles to genomics, but remains interested in space. “It is our objective to launch between 250 million and half a billion dollars of prizes over the next five years,” he said. “We are going to be doing about a third of those prizes in space.” One of those space prizes is expected to be announced later this week; the foundation has released few details other than to say that it will be “the largest international prize in history” in the tens of millions of dollars, backed by a Fortune 500 company.

The Man Who Sold the Moon and D.D. Harriman have clearly been influential on the NewSpace community, but not everyone who is on the front lines of that effort today sees them as the only or even the best Heinlein-related role models. “It was a great story, and it was pivotal in many areas. It was one of the first to point out that much more than technology has to be done to tackle the problem of opening the space frontier,” said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, in his own speech at the Heinlein Centennial. “But does it really sound like most of the commercial ventures out there? No, it sounds like what NASA does: the one big massive well-funded thing.”

The Door into Summer was the book that gave me the word ‘engineer’ for what I do,” Greason said. “And afterwards, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. That’s quite an impact for any author.”

Greason said he found inspiration from another Heinlein novel. The Door into Summer, a Heinlein novel from the mid-1950s, might seem at first an unlikely choice as a model for space companies, in large part because the book has virtually nothing to do with space. It’s the story of Dan Davis, a robotics engineer who, backstabbed by his business partner and former fiancée, flits through time (thanks to suspended animation and time travel) between 1970 and 2000 to first escape his woes and, then, to try and overcome them. Space makes, at best, a cameo appearance in The Door into Summer—a passing reference to a lunar shuttle or Mars expedition—far less than, say, the limited nuclear war waged and won by the US over the Soviet Union a few years before the beginning of the novel.

So what makes The Door into Summer a better model for the entrepreneurial space industry? “In The Door into Summer, a small company, initially just two people, takes technology developed for government purposes, it puts it together in clever new ways, modifying largely off-the-shelf parts at first until they can get a production line set up, to address a currently unserved market,” Greason explained. “They work long hours for no pay while they bootstrap up the business. They lease a military surplus building in the Mojave Desert. And their chief engineer’s name is Dan,” he added, a reference to XCOR’s own chief engineer, Dan DeLong. “That’s a heck of a lot more like what I face at work every day.”

In his speech, he made it clear it was up to the private sector to open the space frontier, leveraging government investment where possible. “The government is not going to build routine, cost-effective space transportation. It’s not a flaw: it’s not what they’re designed to do, it’s not their job,” he said. “Government has done its job. It has developed the basics of rocket technology, and that work has been lying fallow for a long time waiting for entrepreneurs and sources of capital to realize what markets could be served for that.”

“This is tough work, and we do it because if someone doesn’t figure out how to make money with this, we are not going to leave this planet,” he added. “And the flip side of the coin is if somebody does figure out how to make money on this, we have never seen anything like what’s going to happen next.”

The Door into Summer also had a clear personal impact on Greason. “I was never privileged to meet Robert Heinlein, but I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had or done the things I’ve done if it hadn’t been for him and his work.” He recalled reading the book at the age of five after finding it in his school library. “The Door into Summer was the book that gave me the word ‘engineer’ for what I do,” he said, fighting back emotion. “And afterwards, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. That’s quite an impact for any author.”