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Saturday 24 February 2018

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The magnificent Roton prototype. - Image credit: Rotary Rocket Company


Book Review | They All Laughed At Christopher Columbus

by trent waddington
“I didn’t expect to be ridiculed, for trying our best to change the world.”
– Gary Hudson

Did you know there’s a whole book about Rotary Rocket? Well, there is. The author is Elizabeth Weil and as I read “They All Laughed At Christopher Columbus” I repeatedly came to the conclusion that, if I ever met her at a party, this was the kind of girl who wouldn’t be able to get away from me fast enough, and then she’d have to go gossiping to her friends about how terrible it was to be in my presence. As far as I can tell, that’s the intended audience for this book – the whole thing is a long apology to her girlfriends for ever getting involved with “those space people”. Or maybe she just couldn’t stand Mojave.

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Bantam (September 30, 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0553382365
ISBN-13: 978-0553382365

In chapter 9 she writes some of the most generous prose in the entire book. It’s about Burt Rutan, and describes the jubilation of the Voyager’s non-stop around-the-world flight from Mojave to, well, Mojave..

Back on the ground, eighteen gallons of fuel left in the tank, Dick informed his brother of the plane’s smokey cockpit, electrical arching and failing seals. But Burt never fixed them, and nobody flew the Voyager again. The vehicle hangs in its flawed condition in the Smithsonian today.

If you don’t think that’s a very generous description of the world record setting achievement, then I’ve done my job in giving you the gist of this book. Now, some of you may think I’m just annoyed at the author for casting my heroes in an unfavorable light. You may even point out that Weil is a journalist and has a responsibility to report both the good and the bad. While I don’t disagree with that sentiment, I can’t seem to see the journalistic necessity of repeatedly commenting on the thickness of everyone’s glasses or Jeff Greason’s waistline. I didn’t need to hear that she thought Rand Simberg was “noodley”, or that Pete Conrad had a gap in his grin.

This is particularly baffling because the book is so well written. Being able to write so well about subject matter that you take to with such disinterest has to be the sign a truly great writer doesn’t it? After reading this book I felt that I had not only learnt something about building rocketships, or walking the fine line of raising capital without looking needy, but also about modern literature and contemporary art.

When Jeff Foust did his own review shortly after the release in 2003, he commented on the minor thickness of the book (just 200 pages) and the lack of technical details. While I too would have liked to read technical details about the Roton, I couldn’t think of anything worse than having this author attempt to write them. In terms of content, the book was much as I expected – a tale of entrepreneurial daring that was so prevalent in California in the late 90s. It’s apparent that Weil spent much more time with the engineers in Mojave than at the head office in Redwood City, so her story reflects much of the confusion and isolation typically felt by such corporate structuring. That would seem to have been a poor choice for the side of the story she was telling. Perhaps she meant to write about the technical work but couldn’t follow it?

I think it only fair to repeat my warning: if you think of yourself as a member of this community, you probably know someone in this book and you may feel a sting from reading it. All I can say is, grit your teeth and push through because this is one of the only written histories of an NewSpace company. If you’re a writer, and you can convince your subjects that you’re not also after a hatchet job, perhaps you could rectify that.

trent waddington is a computer software engineer from brisbane, australia who has been an active member of the online space community for the last 10 years.  he is responsible for coverage of
space-related events in australia for spacevidcast and a regular caller to the space show.  He writes the quantumG blog at http://quantumg.blogspot.com/

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3 Responses to “Book Review | They All Laughed At Christopher Columbus”

  1. Patrick says:

    I read (parts of) the book a few years ago. Typical wiseass-leftist-female-pseudointellectual-elitist pablum. Supporting cast in a Nora Ephron flick, is about Weil’s speed.

  2. Doug Jones says:

    Liz wanted to interview me for the book, but I knew even then that it would be a hatchet job. I declined, and folks who know me also know that I’m not terribly shy…

  3. John B says:

    This book was passed around through the office when I was working at Orion Propulsion in Huntsville, AL. At the time, we were doing a lot of work for Air Launch, and the dust was still settling on the whole Roton project.

    Without exception, we felt that Weil had done a real hatchet job on Gary, and the whole Roton team. While Weil could comment with literary panache on the physical attributes of the people who had worked with remarkable courage and diligence on the Roton vehicle, she utterly failed to grasp the historical dimensions of her story in the context of humanity’s off-planet expansion.
    I wonder how Weil would feel if someone wrote a book about her life as a writer, but somehow made more mention of her bust size, hair color, and choice of breakfast food, rather than the content of her life’s work.

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