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Summary: When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach by Ashlee Vance

  • The book is a fascinating and thrilling account of the new space race, driven by private companies that aim to make space accessible and profitable.
  • The book follows four pioneering companies (Astra, Firefly, Planet Labs, and Rocket Lab) and their founders, who are driven by a mix of vision, ambition, ego, and passion, as they compete with SpaceX and each other to launch rockets and satellites into orbit by the thousands.
  • The book also explores the implications of this new space economy for humanity, as it opens up new possibilities for exploration, communication, surveillance, and innovation, but also raises some important issues and questions about the future of space.

When the Heavens Went on Sale (2023) is a trip into the wild new Space Age sparked by Elon Musk and accelerated by like-minded space geniuses. Buckle up for a mind-blowing journey through space tech innovation and the future of humanity.

Introduction: A new kind of spacewalk.

Ever thought about what happens when the fearless innovators of Silicon Valley take a good, hard look at the starlit canvas of space? Well, we’re living it right now.

Remember the big bang moment when SpaceX’s Falcon 1 successfully launched into orbit in 2008? That’s when the game changed. Thanks to Elon Musk, we weren’t just continuing the old space race but starting an entirely new one – with new rules. This time, it isn’t superpower nations flexing their muscles but Silicon Valley dreamers and entrepreneurs going neck and neck.

Imagine the limitless possibilities of the Internet, but now transpose that to the boundless expanse of space. That’s the playground we’re talking about. A new Wild West, not of horse-riding outlaws and gold rushes, but of aerospace engineering and visionary startups powered by private money.

So, if you’re simply fascinated by Silicon Valley’s bold entrepreneurial spirit in the space arena or can’t help but gaze at the night sky wondering about the cosmos, you’re in for a treat. In this summary to Ashlee Vance’s When the Heavens Went on Sale, we’ll explore how four pioneering aerospace companies are shaping this booming industry and the future of space exploration.

Brace yourself – it’s going to be an unforgettable journey.

Book Summary: When the Heavens Went on Sale - The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach

Four companies, one vision

The space exploration game is no longer just about governments and their bureaucratic red tape. Planet Labs, Rocket Lab, Astra Space, and Firefly Aerospace have burst onto the scene, shaking things up with their fresh approach to space exploration.

Before we look at these companies’ pursuits, let’s first see what they have in common and how these traits have changed the space industry forever.

To start, these trailblazers know that cost efficiency is key. They’ve cracked the code, finding ways to make space exploration more affordable and accessible. By thinking outside the box and taking a measured approach to time-consuming tasks, they’ve streamlined operations, harnessed innovative technologies, and reimagined rocket designs. The result? Lower costs and more opportunities, which are enabling scientists, researchers, and even everyday folks to get in on the space action.

But here’s the best part: these companies aren’t simply out there for interplanetary colonization or moon tourism. Nope, these companies have their feet firmly planted on good ol’ planet Earth. They’re all about improving our lives via Earth-forward endeavors like climate change, resource management, and environmental monitoring. Each company uses space technology uniquely to gain valuable insights to help us better understand our planet and make informed, future-ready decisions.

So, forget the old notion of space exploration that’s confined to bureaucratic government agencies. These four companies are shaking things up and showing us that space is for everyone. They’re empowering us all to aim for the stars while keeping our sights on making Earth a better place.

Now it’s time to explore how Planet Labs democratizes space exploration.

Planet Labs: Shooting for the stars

Picture this: hundreds of small, inexpensive satellites fly in formation, snapping pictures of every nook and cranny of our planet on a daily basis. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, right? But that’s exactly what Planet Labs is achieving right now.

Cofounded by a trio of self-proclaimed space-nerds-slash-hippies – Robbie Schingler, Will Marshall, and Chris Boshuizen – Planet began with a unique vision. The founders believed in the power of these miniature satellites, lovingly named Doves, to be a force for good. These weren’t stealthy spy satellites for snooping; they were the all-seeing eyes that could help us better understand and optimize our world.

This vision wasn’t just about pictures of troops gathering or ships sailing. It was about enabling us to monitor rainforests, measure greenhouse gasses, and track the movements of refugees, among other conscious goals. The founders wanted to champion truth-telling in an era when facts can be manipulated. As such, they weren’t just aiming for the stars but for transparency – a noble cause if there ever was one.

The deployment of Planet’s revolutionary Doves satellites was groundbreaking. No other company in history had ever launched close to 88 satellites simultaneously before. Normally, you’d see one or two – four or five on a good day. Planet had to invent new ways to locate, control, and command their constellation of Doves as they whirled around Earth. It was like conducting an orchestra in zero gravity.

In the end, the Doves didn’t just fly around aimlessly. Planet used differential drag to control the satellites’ movements. Imagine solar panels acting like sails, pushing against the faint trace of atmosphere in space. This was mostly a theoretical concept until the company proved it could work. And work it did.

In short, Planet was able to make giant strides in space because they started out small – literally. By pioneering new satellite control methods and demonstrating the power of miniaturization, they’ve greatly impacted our understanding of our home planet – and all of that from a bunch of space-loving hippies!

Curious about how Rocket Lab approaches things?

Rocket Lab’s ascent toward stellar success

Forget the glossy NASA-led trope we’re all used to. The new Space Age is a down-to-earth innovation race – thanks to Rocket Lab. As its name suggests, the company reimagines how we reach the stars by developing and delivering small, cost-efficient rockets.

We can’t talk about Rocket Lab without revisiting the story of the company’s founder, Peter Beck. Beck, who grew up tinkering with machines in Invercargill, New Zealand, turned his venture into a billion-dollar space unicorn in 2018 – staking his claim on the final frontier with 3D-printed rockets and daring ingenuity.

Beck began it all with a practical, cost-conscious approach that sets his company apart in space. He could source off-the-shelf components to balance speed and spending, which helped the company deliver on its promise to manufacture rockets quickly, cheaply, and repeatably. This focus on efficiency and pragmatism isn’t just smart; it’s revolutionary.

Beck is obviously not just a dreamer; he’s a doer. Backed by a team of trusted Rocket Lab personnel, he transformed a cramped, research-and-development-style shop into an industrial-grade manufacturing cathedral. It was only a matter of time before the company became known for its impressive fleet of fun-sized Electron rockets ready to reach orbit. Lining up one after the other in perfect rows, flanked by pristine workbenches, these rockets are a testament to Beck’s unparalleled expertise and ambition.

Rocket Lab’s competitive edge is also evident in its secret development of a kick stage for its rockets. This unique innovation – something like a valet service for satellites – places each satellite in super precise orbits, one by one. In the long term, this arrangement enables space to become accessible to a wide range of users, including small-satellite makers and other entities seeking to deploy their payloads with the utmost precision and efficiency. The technology also opens up new possibilities for satellite deployment and enhances the overall accessibility and utilization of space resources.

Stepping into Rocket Lab’s headquarters, you feel like you’ve entered a sci-fi movie, but it’s all very real. From the white tunnel decorated with strips of red LED lights to the black and glossy mission control center, it’s a realm that screams ambition. It’s clear from the get-go that Rocket Lab isn’t just building rockets; they’re constructing a narrative of bold space exploration that can inspire present and future masses.

For the long term, Rocket Lab has been diligently bolstering its American presence, manufacturing its Rutherford engines stateside to meet US government demands and gain a stronger foothold in the vast US aerospace market. Beck’s dedication to meet these demands underscores his and the company’s perseverance and adaptability – both of which are critical traits for a player in the modern space industry.

Now that you know Rocket Lab’s story, it’s time to go to Astra.

A tale of Astra-nomical feats

Astra, formerly known as Stealth Space, wanted to make space more affordable to a wide range of customers and stakeholders across various sectors, including telecommunications and scientific research. So its driving force, Chris Kemp – an American entrepreneur of Silicon Valley fame – came up with practical and cost-conscious ways to build rockets.

But Astra’s journey up to the heavens wasn’t easy. In fact, the company experienced research and development turbulence in rocket manufacturing. Thankfully, the infrastructure setbacks and failed launches of various high-profile rockets, including Rocket 3, never deterred Kemp and his team from the road to space exploration success.

In late 2020, Astra’s perseverance finally prevailed when the so-called Rocket 3.2 took off. Despite not being able to enter orbit due to issues with the upper stage’s fuel mixture, the launch was considered a mighty success. After all, the company’s primary objective for the test flight was to achieve a successful cutoff of the first stage’s main engine, which they accomplished. And so, with some newfound confidence, Kemp proclaimed that Astra was ready for production.

As Astra began expansion work, Kemp contemplated the construction of a second spaceport akin to SpaceX’s achievements. He remained optimistic and relied on a dedicated team to identify ideal launch sites for Astra’s missions. Rocket 3.2’s success also triggered a shift in Kemp’s perspective. He realized that Astra wasn’t solely focused on sending objects and people to distant places like other space billionaires; their mission centered on enhancing life on Earth.

Rather than fixating on colonizing Mars, Kemp has stated that he wants Astra to empower Earthly living. In other words, Astra aims to enable a new generation of pioneers to build and innovate in space for the greater good of humanity down below them.

Astra has since been working on more rockets. But it’s clear that the historic launch of Rocket 3.2 ignited a sense of purpose in Kemp – and propelled Astra to greater heights.

Now that you’ve learned Astra’s story, it’s time to uncover how Firefly – our fourth and final company – has made history in the space industry.

When Firefly lights up the sky

Max Polyakov and Thomas E. Markusic once got together and had a bright idea: Hey, let’s shake things up! They founded Firefly Aerospace with some bold dreams and the grit to get into the game with the big guys in the industry. They were led by this incredible group of go-getters addressing the limitations of small rockets, which opened new opportunities for commercial space activities.

Polyakov and Markusic saw an opportunity in the small-launch market. But instead of settling for small rockets with limited cargo space, they aimed higher. Their groundbreaking Alpha rocket was designed to carry a whopping 2,200 pounds of cargo. And they didn’t stop there! They set their eyes on their Beta rocket, expected to carry an incredible 17,500 pounds. The idea behind Beta was to create rockets that could shoot multiple satellites into space with a single launch. In short, this rocket could be the way to meet the rising demand for space-based services.

The cofounders invested in their company to get things rolling, with Polyakov chipping in a casual $100 million for Alpha’s development. That cash gave them the boost they needed to set up some top-notch facilities in Texas, complete with all the cutting-edge tools they needed. It was like a playground for their product team to dive into innovation headfirst. They worked their socks off – testing, refining, and learning from wins and losses.

Sure, Firefly hit some bumps in the road and saw some delays with the Alpha. But losing was never an option, thanks to Polyakov and Markusic’s determination. The cofounders’ shared drive to flip the industry wouldn’t let them quit. This was how their unique rocket technology came to life.

Now, Firefly isn’t just about rockets. The company has been investing in various tech businesses outside the space sector. It’s scored pieces of the pie in other big tech titans such as Twitter, Airbnb, and Facebook. Why? Polyakov and Markusic are serious about pushing for innovation and making waves in the global tech world.

That’s Firefly’s story in a nutshell. It’s all about big dreams, game-changing innovation, and a determination to break the aerospace industry’s mold.


Planet Labs, Rocket Lab, Astra Space, and Firefly Aerospace have all revolutionized the space industry. They’ve challenged norms, making space more accessible by addressing limitations with innovative approaches. Through efficiency, automation, and cost-consciousness, they’ve proved you don’t need infinitely deep pockets to reach the stars.

About the author

Ashlee Vance is the New York Times bestselling author of Elon Musk and a feature writer at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He’s also the host of Hello World, a travel show that centers on inventors and scientists all over the planet. Previously, he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, The Economist, and The Register.


Science, Technology and the Future, Entrepreneurship, Nonfiction, Business, Space, History, Physics, Biography, Astronautical Engineering, Outer Space, Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, Astronomy, Transportation, Engineering Patents and Inventions, Business Professional’s Biographies


The book is a fascinating and thrilling account of the new space race, driven by private companies that aim to make space accessible and profitable. The author, Ashlee Vance, is a journalist who has covered the technology industry for years and has written a bestselling biography of Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX. In this book, he follows four other pioneering companies that are competing with SpaceX and each other to launch rockets and satellites into orbit by the thousands. They are:

  • Astra, a secretive start-up based in California that builds small, cheap rockets in a former naval base and tries to launch them from remote locations like Alaska and the Marshall Islands.
  • Firefly, a Texas-based company that has faced many challenges, including bankruptcy, espionage investigations, and a devastating explosion, but has persevered to develop a medium-sized rocket that can carry small satellites to different orbits.
  • Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based company that operates the largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites in history, providing valuable data and insights to customers ranging from farmers to governments.
  • Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company that has established a dedicated launch site on a remote peninsula and has become the leader in launching small satellites to low Earth orbit.

The book chronicles the successes and failures, the dreams and dramas, and the personalities and conflicts of these companies and their founders, who are driven by a mix of vision, ambition, ego, and passion. Vance also explores the implications of this new space economy for humanity, as it opens up new possibilities for exploration, communication, surveillance, and innovation.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is well-written, engaging, and informative. Vance has done a remarkable job of researching and reporting on this complex and fast-changing industry. He has gained unprecedented access to the companies and their leaders, as well as their competitors, customers, partners, and critics. He has also witnessed some of the most important and dramatic events in their history, such as launches, explosions, lawsuits, and acquisitions. He tells their stories with vivid details, humor, and insight.

The book is not only a captivating narrative of the new space race, but also a compelling portrait of the misfits and geniuses who are shaping it. Vance reveals their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, and achievements. He also shows their flaws, mistakes, rivalries, and controversies. He does not shy away from asking tough questions or exposing the dark sides of their ventures. He balances his admiration with his skepticism, his enthusiasm with his criticism.

The book also raises some important issues and questions about the future of space. What are the benefits and risks of opening up space for business? Who owns and regulates space? How will space affect our lives on Earth? What are the ethical and moral implications of exploiting space resources? How will space inspire or challenge our imagination and creativity? The book does not provide definitive answers to these questions, but invites the reader to think about them.

Overall, I think this book is a must-read for anyone interested in space or technology. It is not only an entertaining and informative story of the new space race, but also a thought-provoking reflection on the meaning and purpose of space for humanity. I highly recommend it.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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