Ashlee Vance’s “When the Heavens Went on Sale” chronicles the scramble among profit-seekers and idealists to create a new economy far above the Earth.
In the beginning of the Space Age, going to orbit — or beyond — was the province of governments. But as the 21st century began liftoff, so, too, did the commercial space industry. Private companies now take on tasks that have historically been left to national space agencies and defense organizations, using satellites to observe Earth, facilitate communication, and transport things to and from the planet. These rocket makers, spacecraft builders, and dreamers have become an integral — if not always profitable — part of the space sector.
And it all began, writes Ashlee Vance in “When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach,” with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Falcon 1 rocket. The first Falcon attempted (and failed) to launch from Omelek Island in 2006. SpaceX made the countdown without any luck two more times before finally succeeding on its fourth try, in 2008. “That machine set the action that takes place in this book in motion — and quite likely changed the course of human history,” according to Vance, a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.
SpaceX gave people a dream to dream: that they themselves could have access to space. Musk “proved that a driven individual aided by a company full of bright, hardworking people could match, and maybe one day best, entire countries,” Vance writes.
In the years since, the private space economy has blossomed, with companies offering space internet, radar data and images from orbit, tracking of satellites and debris, and rides off the globe. In 2020, more than a thousand commercial satellites went to space, compared with just a few a decade before. “Trying out an idea in space no longer requires congressional approval or some wild-eyed dreamer willing to risk his personal fortunes,” writes Vance. “It just requires a couple of people in a room agreeing that they’re willing to spend someone else’s money on a huge risk.” (It also requires regulatory approval that comes from different agencies, depending on the nature of the technology.)
Vance profiles four companies — all still in business in some form — that got those people in a room and made those agreements. With quirky anecdotes and conversational, sometimes profane prose, he traces each organization from its chaotic, shoestring days to its (somewhat) more grown-up present. And, importantly, Vance lays out how and why this cosmic revolution is happening now.
Part of the answer involves leadership at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the agency’s facility in Silicon Valley. For a long time, the center had none of that Valley flair — being stuck in its own bureaucracy. But then Pete Worden came along in 2006 as the site’s director. Worden is a former Air Force general and an astrophysicist who recruited young, idealistic scientists to inject some fervor into the torpid facility. Vance refers to these R&D entrepreneurs as “space hippies” and “Pete’s Kids.”
In the beginning of the Space Age, going to orbit — or beyond — was the province of governments. But as the 21st century began liftoff, so, too, did the commercial space industry.
Two of Pete’s Kids were Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler, who went on with a third co-founder to start a company called Planet, founded in 2010 and headquartered in San Francisco. Today, the company has more than 150 satellites in orbit snapping pictures of Earth’s landmass every day and has collected around 1,300 images of any given spot on the globe.
With such a stash, the founders imagined they could change how people interact with their planet. “It would be possible to keep much better track of the health of the oceans, forests, and farms,” writes Vance. “It would be possible to monitor much of humanity’s economic activity, including the movement of cargo, the construction of roads and buildings, and how active people are in one region versus another.” Today they sell data subscriptions to the likes of farmers, insurance companies, energy companies, and financial firms.
The images are also useful to military and intelligence types, something Vance doesn’t delve too deeply into, noting that “Planet does a lot of business with the United States and its military and has to keep them sweet.” In 2022, for instance, Planet got its largest contract to date, $146 million from the National Reconnaissance Office, representing a kind of counter to Planet’s space-hippie ethos.
The second company profiled also has deep military-intelligence-industrial ties. Rocket Lab, founded in 2006 in New Zealand, has focused on making and launching small, relatively inexpensive satellites, like Planet’s, which previously had to piggyback on larger rockets with bigger satellites as their primary payload. The company, now publicly traded, conducted its first test launch in 2017.
Vance details founder Peter Beck’s rise from car tinkerer to rocket maker. The trajectory was not without skew: Beck hails from New Zealand but was keen to do business with the American space industry. “Because rockets are intercontinental ballistic missiles by another name, the United States placed tight restrictions around people working on the machines and the associated technology,” writes Vance, who adeptly explores the political difficulties involved in international space endeavors.
At first, Beck eschewed military money — something he couldn’t easily have anyway, at least until he moved Rocket Lab’s headquarters to America. “We said right from the beginning if it’s involved in the military we don’t want anything to do with it,” Vance quotes Beck as saying in the company’s early days. “The military can be quite a tempting cherry because a lot of money gets poured into it but we’re about science, we’re not about killing people.”
His tune eventually changed, though, and Rocket Lab has since launched satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, an American spy organization, and taken funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Operationally Responsive Space Office, and the Office of Naval Research. On the other hand, the company has launched NASA satellites meant to better observe and predict tropical cyclones, as well as radar satellites from a commercial company called Capella.
Foreigner-aversion also comes up with another venture called Firefly, founded in Texas in 2014. The company later received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from a Ukrainian entrepreneur who wanted to mash together “the best of old Soviet aerospace engineering with the best of American New Space engineering.” As you might imagine, that idealistic vision didn’t turn out exactly as planned, and Vance compellingly chronicles the whys and wherefores — mostly that government and investors were suspicious of his intentions, and his intentions to keep information confidential. The government eventually forced the Ukrainian investor to leave the company and sell his shares if Firefly wanted a launch license. The sale of his part of the company went through around the time the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
Finally, there is Astra, founded by another of Pete’s Kids. This company, located in Alameda, California, lends the book tales of cavalier behavior that make the reader want to stay far away from its rockets. For instance, Astra started setting up shop in a former military base before the city and inspectors approved the deal. Later, a failed engine test set the roof on fire, and an employee covered it up so inspectors wouldn’t see.
Given all the rule-bending, perhaps it’s no surprise that the company experienced a number of failures — including a scrubbed launch whose cancelation cost it millions of dollars of potential DARPA prize money.
In Vance’s retellings of events like these, colorful detail keeps the pages turning. His account is impressive in its insider access, chronicling the organizations through candid, irreverent thoughts from company men (and they are mostly men), with whom Vance clearly spent considerable time. However, that deep access can also undermine the narrative, which can read as too close to the sources, and suffers from a lack of outside perspective and analysis.
In some sections, Vance simply prints transcripts from interviews, acting more as mouthpiece than journalist, with the rationalization that “it’s a slightly unusual approach, but these were unusual circumstances.”
The stories of how a company or a particular employee got started are tales well-told — but they are traded for synthesis about the industry, or criticism: For instance, Vance writes of drinking and raucous behavior within the space industry, but doesn’t provide any perspective on what that might mean for safety — of the rockets and of the employees.
More analysis of how these companies fit into the space industry’s decades-long history would also have been welcome. The commercial space weirdos of the 21st century are going about things a little more loosely, and quickly, than traditional government programs. But in the end, like hum-drum contractors of old, they’re also often supporting, or supported by, federal f2-initiatives. Sure, the heavens went on sale — but who’s buying them?
In the epilogue, Vance mentions a company called LeoLabs that helps track and make sure satellites don’t crash into each other in orbit. His cautionary insight about LeoLabs could just as well apply to all the ventures he profiles: “It’s comforting that a company doing this type of work exists but also unsettling that such a task has been taken over by the commercial sector,” he writes. “I suspect that this will be the state commercial space will inhabit for quite some time — a position somewhere between exciting and harrowing.”
Sarah Scoles is a freelance science journalist based in Denver, a contributing writer at Wired, and a contributing editor at Popular Science.