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Rotary Club of Los Altos: Author chronicles innovative spaceflight competition


John Hammerschmidt/ Rotary Club of Los Altos
Author Julian Guthrie discusses her book at the Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting Jan. 11.

Best-selling author and journalist Julian Guthrie discussed her recent book on private spaceflight at the Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting Jan. 11.

Guthrie’s nonfiction book “How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight” follows her acclaimed “The Billionaire and the Mechanic,” which chronicled tech titan Larry Ellison’s quest to win the America’s Cup yacht race.

“How to Make a Spaceship” offers a deep dive into the dreams and achievements of two passionate innovators – Peter Diamandis, an engineer, physician and founder of the XPRIZE Foundation, and Burt Rutan, an aerospace designer who built the experimental SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million XPRIZE in 2004 for suborbital space travel and launched today’s $2 billion private space industry.

Dubbed one of Amazon’s best science books of 2016, “How to Make a Spaceship” ventures “into the minds of adventurers who dared go where NASA no longer does,” according to a reviewer. The innovators’ goal was to design and fly a spaceship without government funding that could be commercialized for space tourism or cargo transport.

The men behind the dream

Guthrie explained how Diamandis departed his native Greece to study medicine at Harvard University to appease his father; he then attended MIT to pursue his fascination with space travel, piqued at age 8 in 1969 by the Apollo 11 moon landing. As a child, he hoarded explosives in his closet, planning one day to send his own missile toward the moon.

Following his passion, Diamandis created and manages the XPRIZE Foundation, whose mission is to produce large-scale incentivized prize competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs like suborbital flight without government funding.

From a young age, Guthrie said, Rutan was fascinated with building unique vessels.

As a boy, he sometimes used his brother Dick’s crashed model-plane parts to build his dream crafts. In the early 1980s, Rutan designed the Voyager, which became in 1986 the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

To win Diamandis’ $10 million XPRIZE for commercial space travel, a small team had to build a piloted craft and fly as high as 100 kilometers twice in two weeks, carrying enough extra baggage to represent the weight of two passengers and demonstrate reusability.

The winning flights occurred in fall 2004, with Rutan inviting the world to witness his feat in the Mojave Desert. Rutan’s mother ship, the White Knight, lifted SpaceShipOne toward its separation elevation of 50,000 feet, and the pilot in the rocket then successfully fired up the engine, flew faster than the speed of sound and experienced several minutes of weightlessness before the difficult return to Earth.

Not only did Rutan’s group prove that small teams can do big things, Guthrie said, it also demonstrated that the experts can sometimes be clueless.

Rutan’s “feather” craft design looked like a badminton shuttlecock, she said, with its wings folded up to induce drag upon re-entry, then extended again to land.

According to Guthrie, naysayers targeted the competition, asking questions such as “Why isn’t NASA doing this?” and “What if somebody dies?”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson were among the observers at the Mojave Air & Space Port, as was Anousheh Ansari, who co-founded the high-tech Prodea Systems Co. and later became the first woman to spend 10 days in space.

It was an event of high drama, emotion and peril, Guthrie said, one that showcased big dreams, eye-opening innovations and ultimately the story of how history was made and an industry launched.

Guthrie added that Rutan, master of the unconventional, liked to say, “The day before something is a breakthrough, it is a crazy idea.”

“How to Make a Spaceship” is available at local bookstores and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is being adapted as a television series.

Guthrie’s next book, “Alpha Girls,” will document the hidden figures of Silicon Valley.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.

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