Skip to main content
Displaying 1 of 1
How to make a spaceship : a band of renegades, an epic race, and the birth of private space flight
Author Notes
Julian Guthrie is an award-winning journalist who spent twenty years at the San Francisco Chronicle and has been published by The Wall Street Journal , Time , The Huffington Post , and others. She is the author of The Billionaire and the Mechanic , a bestselling account of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's pursuit of the America's Cup, and of The Grace of Everyday Saints , the story of the longest parish protest in Catholic America.
First Chapter or Excerpt
1 Unruly At around ten p.m. on July 20, 1969, eight-year-old Peter Diamandis positioned himself in front of the large television set in the wood-paneled basement of his family's home in Mount Vernon, New York. His mom, dad, younger sister, and grandparents were seated nearby. Peter, in pajamas and cape, aimed his mom's Super 8 camera at the screen, panned the room, paused on his white German shepherd, Prince, and returned to the television. On the carpet next to Peter were his note cards and newspaper clippings, organized by NASA mission-Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo-and by rockets-Redstone, Atlas, Titan, and Saturn. The third-grader, unable to sit still under normal circumstances-his mother called him ataktos, Greek for unruly-fidgeted, bounced, and rocked in place. This was the moment Peter had dreamed about, a moment that promised to be better than all the electronics he could buy at Radio Shack, cooler than every Estes rocket ever made, more exciting even than the M80s lit on his birthday, sending his mom and friends diving for cover. The Sears Silvertone TV was turned to CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the seasoned newsman who was at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Peter, with the camera on, read the words "MAN ON THE MOON: THE EPIC JOURNEY OF APOLLO 11." He listened to a clip from a speech given by President Kennedy in May 1961: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." The onscreen countdown began for Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to park their lunar lander on the surface of the Moon, a quest for the ages, a Cold War imperative, and a high-stakes contest between nations that had begun when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. Now, almost twelve years later, America was trying to make history of its own. Astronaut Michael Collins, piloting Apollo 11's command module Columbia, had already separated from the lander and was alone in lunar orbit, waiting for his fellow astronauts to walk on the Moon. If all went according to plan, Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong would reunite in orbit in less than a day. About seventeen thousand engineers, mechanics, and managers were at the Florida space center for the launch. In all, an estimated four hundred thousand people had worked on some part of the Apollo program, from the women in Dover, Delaware, who did the sewing and gluing of the life-protecting rubberized fabric of the spacesuits, to the engineers at NASA, Northrop, and North American Aviation who worked for years on the clustering, three-chute parachute system for Columbia. The cost of the program was put at more than $25 billion. Peter daydreamed constantly about exploring the glittering and dark expanse in his own spaceship, like the Robinson family in the television series Lost in Space, with the precocious nine-year-old son Will Robinson and the humanized and weaponized Robot. But on this night, the TV screen had his undivided attention. Cronkite, in his deep voice and languid manner, said, "Ten minutes to the touchdown. Oh boy . . . Ten minutes to landing on the Moon." The program flashed between streamed images of the Moon and simulations of the landing done by CBS with NASA's help. The signal from the lunar camera had to be transmitted a quarter of a million miles to the Parkes Radio Astronomy Observatory west of Sydney, Australia, and then across the Pacific Ocean by satellite to the control center in Houston. From there, the images would go to television networks and finally to television sets in the United States and abroad. In the first few minutes of flight, the Saturn V first stage-which had its design origins as a ballistic missile used by the Germans in World War II-had used four and a half million pounds of propellant, and the craft's velocity relative to Earth had gone from zero to 9,000 feet per second in ascent. Cronkite announced: "Go for landing, three thousand feet." "Eagle looking great," said Mission Control in Houston, as grainy black-and-white images of a barren, rock-strewn landscape appeared on television sets. "Altitude sixteen hundred feet," Cronkite narrated. "They're going to hover and make a decision. . . . Apparently it's a go. Seven hundred feet, coming down." "Nineteen seconds, seventeen, counting down," Cronkite said. It was just before dawn on the Moon, and the sun was low over the eastern horizon behind the lunar lander. Peter focused his camera on the screen. He had used his mom's camera to film NASA television broadcasts before. He had clipped countless newspaper and magazine stories of space missions and written letters to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He had a "Short Glossary of Space Terms," issued by NASA, and he memorized terms like "monopropellant" and "artificial gravity." He won first place in a county dental poster contest with his drawing of the launch of Apollo to the Moon and the caption "Going away? Brush three times a day." He and his elementary school friend Wayne Root made their own stop-motion movies, using Star Trek models on fishing line as props. Peter learned that he could scratch the film in postproduction to make spaceships fire laser beams. On weekends, Peter loved to sit his family down in the living room upstairs and give lectures on stars, the Moon, and the solar system, explaining terms like "LEO," for low-Earth orbit. The launch of the Saturn V rocket on July 16, four days before the scheduled Moon landing, had been to Peter every Fourth of July rolled into one. Three men riding on top of a fiery rocket aimed at space! Five F-1 engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene and producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust! It was like sending the Washington Monument rocketing skyward. Peter littered his schoolbooks with sketches and doodles of planets, aliens, and spaceships. He had drawn the Saturn V over and over, with its first stage, second stage, and third stage, its lunar module, service module, and command module. At 363 feet, it was taller than a football field set on end, both beauty and monster, weighing more than 6.4 million pounds when prepared for launch. Peter had watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climb through the docking tunnel from Columbia to Eagle to check on the lunar module. The lunar module-the LM, pronounced "LEM" and originally called the Lunar Excursion Module-had never been tested in the microgravity of the Moon. Peter was not alone in wondering whether this spaceship would make it back to Earth. Columbia would return at more than 17,000 miles per hour. If its descent was too steep, it would burn up; if too gradual, it wouldn't make it through the atmosphere back to Earth. Even when coming into the atmosphere perfectly-threading the needle at supersonic speeds-Columbia would be a fireball, with temperatures on the outside exceeding three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Peter's father, Harry Diamandis, appreciated this moment in history and welcomed any news that wasn't about the Vietnam War or the emotional civil rights struggles of the day. But he couldn't understand his son's fascination with space, given the challenges of life on Earth. He and his wife, Tula, had come from the small Greek island of Lesbos, where he grew up tending goats and bartering for food-olives for almonds, kale for milk-and working at his father's cafZ. Harry's mother, Athena, was a housekeeper who would bring home surplus bits of dough in her apron pockets to bake for the family. One of Harry's favorite Christmas presents was a red balloon. He was a village boy, the first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college. Harry had wanted to be a doctor, and passed his medical boards in Athens before setting his sights on America. He arrived in the Bronx speaking no English. Their journey from Lesbos to America, and Harry's path to becoming a successful obstetrician, at times felt like its own trip to the Moon, with improbable odds, an element of fear, and a feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land. On the television screen in the Diamandises' living room, images showed a simulation of the lunar landing. Then Apollo 11 commander Armstrong radioed, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." The Eagle sat silently on the Sea of Tranquility in the Moon's northern hemisphere. Mission Control radioed back, "Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again." "The lunar module has landed on the Moon," Cronkite marveled. "We're home. Man on the Moon." More than five hundred million people, from crowds gathered before screens in Disneyland to American soldiers in Vietnam, watched as the white-suited, tank-headed Armstrong, a ghostly, blocky figure, backed out of the module and made his way down the steps. Tula watched Peter, hoping her son remembered to breathe. Armstrong said, "I'm at the foot of the ladder. The surface appears to be very, very fine-grained as you get close to it. It's almost like a powder. I'm going to step off the LM now." It was just minutes before eleven p.m. in the Diamandis household. From Earth, the Moon was in a waxing crescent phase. Slowly, Armstrong moved his cleated foot onto the talcum surface, becoming the first human to ever touch another celestial body. "That's one small step for man," Armstrong said, "one giant leap for mankind." The view was desolate but mesmerizing, a desert scrubbed clean. The sky looked thick and dark like black velvet. Peter stopped filming. This was the difference between believing in God and witnessing God. It was both answer and question, new frontier, old Earth. It was NASA doing what it said it would do. The astronauts were modern-day Magellans. Cronkite removed his black-rimmed glasses, rubbed his hands together, and dropped his paternal demeanor. "There's a foot on the Moon," he said, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. "Armstrong is on the Moon. Neil Armstrong-thirty-eight-year-old American-standing on the surface of the Moon! Boy, look at those pictures-240,000 miles to the Moon. I'm speechless. That is really something. How can anybody turn off from a world like this?" It was close to midnight when Tula finally got the kids to bed. Marcelle, who was six, was asleep before her head hit the pillow. Peter, still wired with excitement, told his mom once again that he was going to be an astronaut when he grew up. Tula's reply never varied: "That's nice, dear. You're going to be a doctor." Medicine was known; space was experimental. Besides, the first-born son in a Greek family always followed his father's path. Family friends were already calling young Peter the future Dr. Diamandis. Tula had given Peter a child's doctor's kit, and he would sometimes have her recline on the sofa so he could check her pulse and listen to her heartbeat. Being a doctor would be an honorable profession for Peter. After Tula left the room, Peter turned on his flashlight and ducked under his tented bedspread. He made entries in his secret diary: The Moon was freezing in the shadows but baking in the sun. He would need a suit and the right boots-maybe his ski boots. There was no air to breathe on the Moon, so he'd need oxygen. He'd need food, water, and of course, a rocket. He drew more pictures of Saturn V, and of the astronauts. Late into the night, drawings and notes scattered around him, Peter fell asleep wondering how he could possibly be a doctor when he needed to get to the Moon. In the years following the lunar landing, Peter began making his own rovers, among other machines. He was predatory in his pursuit of motors to hack. In one case, the lawn mower motor disappeared, turning up later on his go-kart. Then the bedsheets went missing, revealing themselves eventually as parachutes for the go-kart. The Diamandis family lived in the middle of the block on a middle-class street on the north side of Mount Vernon, New York, about thirty minutes from New York City and bordering the Bronx. Their house was a two-story white Dutch colonial with blue shutters, a big front yard, and a narrow gravel driveway where Peter liked to set up jumps for his bike. The house also had a side yard and backyard, with cherry trees and a swing set put together with great effort by his dad and uncle. Peter drove his lawn mower-powered go-kart down the street from his house, turned onto Primrose Avenue, and pushed the cart to the top of an enormous hill. Wearing no helmet, he blasted down Primrose Avenue like a junior John Stapp, the Air Force colonel who studied g-forces by famously riding rocket-powered sleds to a top speed of 639 miles per hour. Peter deployed his go-kart's "parachute" only when precariously close to the busy intersection. Peter took particular delight in his sister's toys, eyeing them as a raven stares at a meaty carcass. When Marcelle received a new Barbie Dream House, Peter discovered that its motor was perfect for one of his projects, and the Barbie window shades provided the ideal chain to automate the arm of one of his robots. Marcelle and her parents went from amused to exasperated. Peter also hatched various weapon-related plans, including one that used a pipe cleaner fashioned as a projectile for his BB gun. When it didn't work, Peter mistakenly tried to suck it out of the barrel, only to have the discharged pipe cleaner shoot straight down his throat. He was rushed to the hospital and back to his experiments by nightfall. Peter got good grades, but his teachers wrote on his report cards, "Peter talks too much," and he could "work a little harder on settling down." Every Sunday, Peter and his family drove to the Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church near Roslyn, where Peter was an altar boy, tasked with carrying the incense, candles, or the large gold cross and helping with communion. Confession wasn't required, but he talked openly with the kind Reverend Father Alex Karloutsos, telling him that he regularly took his sister's toys and too often made his parents worry. And he told him about his love of space; it was his "guiding star." Peter shared with Father Alex his belief that they were all living in a biosphere, a kind of terrarium seeded with life by aliens. The aliens returned, Peter confided, to collect people as specimens or seedlings, but only in rural places like Nebraska where they wouldn't be noticed. Father Alex liked listening to Peter and knew that he was not a boy who could be placated by statements like "God is love." Father Alex told Peter that the greatness of the universe was a reflection of God's presence in our lives. Excerpted from How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Space Flight by Julian Guthrie All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Science and engineering
Space travel
Space race
Space exploration
Time Period
-- 20th-21st century
Large Cover Image
Trade Reviews
Library Journal Review
Guthrie (The Billionaire and the Mechanic; The Grace of Everyday Saints) shares the story behind the story of creating a privately built manned spacecraft that could break the sound barrier, once the federal government announced that it was getting out of that business. Enter the Ansari X Prize, the brainchild of engineer, physician, and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, who was in love with space travel from boyhood. Diamandis found the money for the $100,000 cash award and, with the help of astronauts, engineers, and other experts, devised the rules for the prize and got the competition airborne. The book also features behind-the-scenes peeks at the international team participants, as well as Tier One Project's ultimate victorious bullet-shaped spaceplane, dubbed "SpaceShipOne." The challenge has led to other similar efforts, and the visionaries behind these achievements are recognized here. Prolific audiobook narrator Rob Shapiro's masterly, steady-paced reading will maintain listener interest in the dramatic, suspenseful stories of the competitors. VERDICT Guthrie's fascinating book will appeal to fans of Walter Isaacson's The Innovators and Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Guthrie's work will also interest erudite listeners eager to maintain awareness of the ongoing work since the prize was won. ["Many will find this offering appealing.[with its] nail-biting climax": LJ 9/1/16 review of the Penguin hc.]-Dale Farris, Groves, TX © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
In this sympathetic retelling of the establishment of the Ansari X Prize, for the first launch of a private reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks, and the race to win it, journalist and author Guthrie (The Billionaire and the Mechanic) chronicles the struggles, triumphs, and everything it took to kick-start private spaceflight. She starts with the explosives-filled childhood of entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and works in the backgrounds of several other major players, including designer and entrepreneur Burt Rutan and aviator Erik Lindbergh (grandson of Charles), illustrating how they developed the skills, connections, and passion needed to pull everything off. As she follows them and teams from different countries through triumphs, setbacks, joys, and tragedy, the stakes become very real and even financial struggles feel suspenseful and compelling. Rutan's SpaceShipOne becomes the actual star of the relatable and easy reading narrative, and the flights are written to make readers feel like they're experiencing them in real time, nerves and all. Unfortunately, as Guthrie details this technological achievement, she fails to address very real criticisms of privatized spaceflight (commercialization and access, privatization of military contracts, lack of transparency, etc.). Her willingness to gloss over the Randian ideology of some figures may also raise red flags for some readers. But if readers are looking for scientific discussions, humorous anecdotes, and intense action, Guthrie covers those bases. Agent: Joseph Veltre, Gersh Agency. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Booklist Review
In 2004, the aerospace world was abuzz when a private company, Scaled Composites, launched a person into space for a few suborbital minutes. Sponsors hailed the success as the beginning of commercial space tourism, though that hasn't yet happened. Nevertheless, the company perseveres with backing from business mogul Richard Branson, who provides an upbeat introduction to Guthrie's (The Billionaire and the Mechanic, 2013) account, which features the life story of the project's instigator, Peter Diamandis. In college, he designed spacecraft gadgets and organized spaceflight clubs. In business, he created four companies, whose fickle fortunes Guthrie describes, before hitting upon his golden entrepreneurial idea, replicating for the space age the inducement that launched Charles Lindbergh: a monetary prize for flying the Atlantic. Diamandis offered the XPRIZE for a successful non-NASA space mission. Even though he did not initially have the announced $10 million for the prize, his persuasiveness filled the coffers, attracted contestants, and, most importantly, secured support from the likes of Branson and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. Guthrie well captures the high-risk, buccaneering spirit of privately financed spaceflight.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2016 Booklist
Kirkus Review
Engaging account of the race to get a rocket up to the Karman line without getting NASA involved.In her last book, The Billionaire and the Mechanicnbsp;(2013), former San Francisco Chronicle journalist Guthrie recounted Oracle CEO Larry Ellisons quest to win the Americas Cup. Here, she recounts entrepreneur Peter Diamandis libertarian dream of taking space exploration out of the hands of government and putting it into the hands of private citizens. Of course, theres a reason government handles most space flight: it costs staggering amounts of money. Diamandis was not always wealthy, writes Guthrie, but he had been single-minded about his pursuit, blending studies in engineering and medicine while sublimating some of his other interests. There were times when Peter longed for a girlfriend, writes the author, and other times when he realized love would have to wait. Big-picture thinker thus secured, Guthries tale turns to the foot soldiers of the piece, chief among them 63-year-old test pilot Mike Melvill and his team of desert-rat mechanics, who pinned all their hopes on winning the $10 million purse that Diamandis offered for a spacecraft that could get beyond Earths atmosphere. As Virgin Group founder Richard Branson writes in the foreword, because of Diamandis and his XPRIZE, billions of dollars have been invested in commercializing space. Guthries book isnt quite up to the literary heights of Tom Wolfes The Right Stuff (1979), but its very good. The author treats matters of scientific and technical weight with a light hand, as when she writes of how a test flight is put togetherwith a lot of data analysis and braking at first, then with a few passes in the thin cushion of air inches above the runway, and then, finally, in the wild blue yonder. Just the thing for aspiring astronauts and rocketeers. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
A New York Times bestseller!

The historic race that reawakened the promise of manned spaceflight

A Finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Alone in a Spartan black cockpit, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed toward space. He had eighty seconds to exceed the speed of sound and begin the climb to a target no civilian pilot had ever reached. He might not make it back alive. If he did, he would make history as the world's first commercial astronaut.

The spectacle defied reason, the result of a competition dreamed up by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, whose vision for a new race to space required small teams to do what only the world's largest governments had done before.

Peter Diamandis was the son of hardworking immigrants who wanted their science prodigy to make the family proud and become a doctor. But from the age of eight, when he watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon, his singular goal was to get to space. When he realized NASA was winding down manned space flight, Diamandis set out on one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time. If the government wouldn't send him to space, he would create a private space flight industry himself.

In the 1990s, this idea was the stuff of science fiction. Undaunted, Diamandis found inspiration in an unlikely place: the golden age of aviation. He discovered that Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight to win a $25,000 prize. The flight made Lindbergh the most famous man on earth and galvanized the airline industry. Why, Diamandis thought, couldn't the same be done for space flight?

The story of the bullet-shaped SpaceShipOne, and the other teams in the hunt, is an extraordinary tale of making the impossible possible. It is driven by outsized characters--Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, John Carmack, Paul Allen--and obsessive pursuits. In the end, as Diamandis dreamed, the result wasn't just a victory for one team; it was the foundation for a new industry and a new age.
Table of Contents
Foreword    Richard Bransonp. xiii
Prologue Mojave Desertp. 1
Part 1The Infinite Corridor
1Unrulyp. 11
2Early Regretsp. 27
3Pete in Spacep. 38
4Mojave Magicp. 50
5Space Medicinep. 64
6Being a Lindberghp. 78
7A Career in Orbitp. 87
8Struggles in the Real Worldp. 101
9Meeting the Magicianp. 114
10An Out-of-This-World Ideap. 123
Part 2The Art of the Impossible
11Eyes on the Prizep. 139
12Cowboy Pilotp. 153
13History Repeats Itselfp. 164
14The Space Derbyp. 178
15Epiphanies in the Mojavep. 189
16Peter's Pitchesp. 203
17A Lindbergh Sculpts a Dreamp. 216
18Peter Blasts Offp. 224
19Elon's Inspirationp. 237
20Burt and Paul's Big Adventurep. 245
21A Lifeline for the XPRIZEp. 259
22A Display of Hardwarep. 266
23Another Lindbergh Takes Flightp. 280
24A Hole in Onep. 292
Part 3A Race to Remember
25A Fire to Be Ignitedp. 305
26The Test of a Lifetimep. 321
27Flirting with Calamityp. 334
28Power Strugglesp. 349
29In Pursuit of a Masterpiecep. 363
30One for the Moneyp. 373
31Rocketing to Redemptionp. 388
32Hallowed Companyp. 402
Epilogue: Where Are They Now?p. 405
Afterword: Space, Here I Come!    Stephen Hawkingp. 413
Author's Notep. 417
Acknowledgmentsp. 421
Indexp. 423
Librarian's View
Displaying 1 of 1