They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship

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This is a classic American tale of dreams and obsession--the suspenseful, brilliantly written account of one eccentric man’s hunger to open space travel to us all: to let us rocket into orbit, return to earth, and soar yet again--thus transforming space travel forever.

They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

Gary Hudson was seven years old when Sputnik flew, nineteen when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and all he ever wanted to do was to travel into space. Between 1970 and 1996 he founded and disbanded five separate rocket-building companies, none meeting with much success. Then, in 1997, at the age of forty-seven, he launched Rotary Rocket. His goal was to develop and build the Roton, the world’s first manned, single-stage-to-orbit, fully reusable spaceship, capable of shuttling ordinary people into orbit and back in a single day. Elizabeth Weil followed Gary for two years, and in this book she brings to vivid life a seductively--perhaps delusionally--optimistic world where science and science fiction meld and fuse, and where imagination and invention collide.

In California’s bleak and windswept Mojave Desert, Gary assembled a fanatical, mismatched crew of engineers and technicians, and Weil bears witness to their Roton endeavor, from first conception to final test flight. The cast includes a pyromaniacal engineer, a world expert on composite airframes, two former Navy test pilots, Gary’s infinitely patient wife, a third-generation Mojave motel owner, and an enigmatic and resourceful financier. At their center shines Gary himself, a man eternally reflecting the glow of a better, lighter, higher world--a world that, despite his flaws and failures, he perpetually convinces us we’re all about to reach.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

Chapter 1

Eleven years later, in the fall of 1997, when Gary told me he'd never been interested in the past or even in the present, that he'd only been interested in the future, I should have been scared but I wasn't, and I should have asked questions but I didn't. I'd just met the chronic and entirely self-taught spacecraft builder for the first time, and I took his statement as a declaration of taste, as if he'd never been interested in money or music, only hot rod cars. Most of what I knew about Gary I'd read in Halfway to Anywhere, G. Harry Stine's relentlessly hagiographic 1996 account of the alternative space movement, and I liked to imagine Gary drinking bright volumes of Gatorade at his rocket-building facility in the high California desert, the present filled only with Joshua trees and snakes, the future glaring like the white-hot sun. I imagined myself there, too, swimming in bean-shaped motel pools, living out of my car. Only later, after I'd moved to California and spent three years in Gary's vortex, did I realize what an odd, amnesic place the future is, and that by unmooring himself from past and present, he'd moored himself to nothing at all.

In hindsight, of course, I missed many signals: Gary's near-constant references to Star Trek episodes, the near-total lack of successful aerospace experience on the resumes of his employees. But I was more porous than I knew, and that first trip to meet Gary got off to an auspicious start. I flew into San Francisco and drove south, as directed, on Highway 101, reaching a few miles later the junction of 92, a triumph of light, spirit, and engineering, a place where the ramps angled and arched in such a way that one could imagine driving from the freeway into the sky. Their geometry hinted at weightlessness. Their curves engendered hope. Instantly the ramps convinced me that Gary must pass this interchange every day on his way to work, and that he must more than occasionally wonder if that day, for once, the laws of physics might contain certain loopholes, if Earth might let him go. At least once, I felt sure, Gary must have indulged his curiosity, gunned his roadster up the ramp just to make sure the pavement generated nothing more than some trippy spiritual lift. Of course, he would have found himself not in orbit but on the San Mateo Bridge, on which he would have had to pull a tight U-turn and rejoin 101. From there the directions to his Redwood Shores office would remain the same: exit Ralston Boulevard, right on Twin Dolphin Drive, park in front of Suite 230C, and press through the tinted glass.

I had come to visit because, for a complicated pastiche of political and economic reasons, a small window had finally cracked open on the possibility of civilian space travel, and, from what I'd read, Gary believed unwaveringly, perhaps even unprecedentedly, in the fulfillment such travel provided. He felt the American government had defaulted on the promise of cheap, regular access to space. He was seven when Sputnik flew. Nineteen when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. Twenty-two when Eugene Cernan left the last moon-dusted boot mark. And he still seemed not to have fully recovered from the magic of those memories, from the implicit, naive prospect that someday soon we would all be living in the ether, shouldering power-packs and wearing jumpsuits, in a better, higher, lighter world. Gary's peers included men with Ph.D.s from M.I.T. who had a hard time holding down jobs. One in particular, a man obsessed with the Star Trek spin-off Babylon 5, remained haunted by a grandmother who shushed him to sleep early on the night of Apollo 17, claiming you have school tomorrow, you need to be sharp, we'll be landing on the moon every day when you grow up. (Especially traumatic given that NASA canceled the final three Apollo missions, 18, 19, and 20, the moon shots deemed too expensive, the space race won.) Others gathered annually on July 20, the anniversary of the first moon landing, in Beverly Hills. For their ritual dinner, they borrowed the form of the Passover seder, only instead of commemorating the Jews fleeing the bonds of slavery in ancient Egypt, they celebrated human beings escaping the bonds of gravity here on earth.

Gary formed his current company, Rotary Rocket, in 1996. For it, he subleased 3,000 square feet of corporate campus space from The Automation Group, a database outfit that soon changed its name to All Bases Covered. At the time, the height of the technology boom, nearly the entire Silicon Valley gleamed--the wet, sodded midways, the kids in their BMWs, the horizon shingled over with futuristic billboards, beating back up into the hills the eucalyptus and Monterey pines. Overhead, just off Twin Dolphin Drive, loomed the six icy mirrored towers of the computer giant Oracle: those fascist-style, triumphant conquering pods, evidence of the seemingly endless money that had washed up on the peninsula in recent years. Rotary Rocket, however, looked outmoded, almost quaint: inside, no security check, no sign-in sheet, just a cozy green velour sofa serving as the waiting area, and airbrushed posters of V-2 and Delta rockets adorning the otherwise plain walls.

That clear fall morning, behind the reception desk, a standard-issue Rand McNally globe wobbled on its stand, and next to the globe sat Anne Hudson, Gary's wife. Anne looked simultaneously vital and sickly, well into her forties, with gentle features, trusting eyes, unfussy hair, an appealing Midwestern directness, twitching hands, and clear plastic braces. Smiling warmly, she pulled the globe off its stand and shifted the sphere from shaking palm to shaking palm. Later, after she replaced it, she tugged open a new pint of cream for coffee and a good quarter-cup spilled on the floor. "It's just been one of those days," she said, setting down her mug so as not to spill it, too. That morning, she confessed, she'd poured a newly-refilled prescription right down the bathroom sink by accident. "Did you see that Star Trek episode 'Day of Honor'?" she said, fumbling for the paper towels, cleaning up. "That's where, for one day, everyone on the Enterprise finally recognizes all your accomplishments, but for you it just seems like everything's going wrong."

Pictures I'd seen from Gary's early rocket-building days showed a young man, fair and toothy, full of heroic, misguided confidence and steam. Now he poked his head out from behind his office door. At age forty-seven, he still had the same soft mouth, smooth skin, trim carriage, and straight nose, but his eyes were sunk beadily under thick, ridged hoods, his delicate hands shook, like Anne's, and his skull was shrouded in a mat of buzz-cut gray. He'd decorated his office with mementos of his failures, models of his Liberty, Percheron, and Phoenix rockets, and drawings of his Osiris, of which not even models got built. A demoralizing and punitive setting in which to enter one's third decade in the spaceship business, but Gary flatly rejected this theory. "All those past projects were doomed from the start," he said, waving an unsteady hand, his voice an urgent monotone, not unlike Gerald Ford's, "just as the Roton is fated to succeed." Flushed with emotion, he cited the major techno-political and economic changes. "The Cold War has ended! NASA is floundering! Telecommunications giants like Motorola now need thousands of birds launched into space!"

This was all true. The behemoth structures that had supported behemoth aerospace political powers had collapsed. NASA lacked a mandate, the space shuttle never lived up to its sixty-flights-a-year promise, and the public was more reluctant than ever to spend tax money on otherworldly technologies, leaving the space frontier open to fringe capitalistic elements. How, Gary asked, could the U.S. government have ever allowed him to go orbital during satellite spying efforts like Project Corona and the other space-borne espionage schemes of the Cold War? Lacking an answer, I wondered aloud why Gary had continued building his spaceships under such perverse geopolitical conditions. He responded with a question I should have considered more closely: "Why does a fundamentalist pray?"

Gary had grown up an only child in a modest white clapboard house, in what he called "a normal Beaver Cleaver family." His mother, Marcella, was a second-generation Italian housewife; his father, Noble (whose name Gary always coveted), distributed candy and cigarettes to convenience stores and gas stations. The Hudsons never took any family vacations--a fact Gary did not associate with his desire to explore space--and socially he kept to himself, worried even as a child, or so he said, that peer pressure would separate him from his dreams. Gary's formal education consisted of thirteen years of parochial school where he sang baritone in the choir, and while the nuns never managed to shape him into a Christian devotee, they did send him off into the world with a curiously spot-on perspicacity to draw out men's dreams. Once, when I was with him, he pulled into a small-town gas station and said, "What's up?"

The attendant, who had never met him, replied, "Nothing but Mir, far as I know."

Gary's desire for space travel took root at age seven, the same year the Soviets launched Sputnik I, when he saw an image of a spaceport in A Trip Through Space, a cardboard-bound children's primer written by Catherine E. Barry and published in 1954 "for boys and girls ages 8 to 14." Eighty-seven space-related children's books were published in the United States in the 1950s--You Among the Stars (1951), You and Space Neighbors (1953), Flash Gordon (1956), and You Will Go to the Moon (1959) among them. But Gary and Anne still referred to A Trip Through Space as "the book." They kept a copy of "the book" in a glass-shuttered case in their hardwood-floored living room, above a collection of Anne's most powerful crystals and below a bound volume of Wernher von Braun's engineering plans for passenger buses to the moon. Gary believed that the science fiction he'd read as a child had shaped his sense of what was possible as an adult. Since he'd read "the book," he estimated he'd read about eight thousand others--perhaps a quarter of those science fiction--and drafted a book of his own. He'd seen about a thousand movies, roughly three a month, and even hung the walls of his modern, Mediterranean-style condo with original paintings from science fiction book jackets, but somehow nothing had dislodged "the book" and its spaceport from its pedestal in Gary's mind. On the cover a boy and a girl played with a simple ham radio. One page pictured docks stacked high with boxes for orbital shipping. Another reprinted the space liner schedule: three o'clock departure for Luna, seven o'clock arrival from the asteroid belt.

In his modest office, Gary wore a solid green polo shirt, ironed khakis, Mephisto walking shoes, and a wide leather belt with a large metal buckle in the shape of a Chinese flying fish. "First Lewis and Clark went west. Then the mountain men. Then the trappers and the traders. Then the settlers," he said, positioning his spaceship efforts metaphorically. "What I'm doing here is the mountain man analog." If I understood Gary correctly, he was saying Apollo was Lewis and Clark, the space entrepreneurs (like himself) were trappers and traders, and the settlers would come along very very soon, just as soon as someone developed a cheap, spaceworthy Conestoga wagon--just as soon as his latest rocket, the Roton, took off.

Next Gary lit into a lecture about the various means of capturing the communications satellite market, a market he hoped would lure investment money. "We can lower the price of launch"--of delivering cargo, such as satellites to orbit--"from $5,000 a pound to $1,000 per pound, and at that price we'll still be charging an order of magnitude above our cost." I stared at him, wide-eyed. Eventually, he loosened his shoulders and said, "Look, I don't want to open the space frontier for the goddamn machines!" He took a deep breath and held the air tight inside his lungs. "Excuse my reluctance," he said, exhaling. "It's a vulnerable profession, being a rocket engineer. Being a rocket engineer is actually a lot like being a geeky kid who wants to meet girls. After a certain amount of rejection, what you learn to do is let the girl try to come and meet you."

Rockets originated in China during the Sung dynasty, soon after the discovery of gunpowder, when men learned that if you fill a bamboo with gunpowder and close both ends, you have a bomb, and if you fill a bamboo with gunpowder and close only one end, you have a rocket. The Chinese used their rockets in the defense of Kaifeng in 1232, but the technology was almost entirely forgotten until 1804, when the Englishman William Congreve packed gunpowder into an iron casing and sent it hurtling one and a half miles. Eighty-six years later, Hermann Ganswindt, a German, conceived of the first rocket-propelled spaceship--a major intellectual achievement--but he built nothing, and the idea languished on the outskirts of the theoretical until the self-taught Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a paper entitled "A Rocket into Cosmic Space" in 1903. Tsiolkovsky later computed gravity-loads, escape velocity, and flight time to the moon, earning himself the moniker "the father of modern rocketry." Still, the first liquid-propelled rocket--the first rocket of the kind capable of escaping Earth's gravity--was not launched until 1926 when a shy and secretive Clark University physics professor named Robert Goddard blasted off a ten-foot-long, magnesium-alloy-and-aluminum airframe, under LOX-ether power, from his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket soared 41 feet in 2.5 seconds, landing 184 feet away. Only four people witnessed the launch, including Goddard and his wife. No one heard about it for ten years.

Across contemporary culture, space travel has come to mean a great variety of things--the movie Contact (1997) represents it as a journey to heaven, the movie Event Horizon (1997) as a trip to hell; students once picketed a space art exhibit in Utrecht with posters asking, "Can those who don't believe in God reach heaven by rocket?" To place his own counterculture rocketry in context, Gary offered up a distilled version of space history. "There are two basic ways to leave the planet," he said, "ballistically, atop a missile"--Spam in a can, as the test pilots like to say--"or aeronautically, in a plane." In the 1940s, the United States started looking seriously into both options. On the aeronautic side, the X Program--X for experimental--sought to escape the earth's gravitational field with ever faster and lighter Air Force jets. The first flyer in the series, the X-1, also known as Glamorous Glennis, rose to glory when Chuck Yeager climbed in with his dinged-up ribs, breaking the sound barrier in 1947.

For the next fourteen years, space planes evolved incrementally over time, up through the X-15, which enjoyed little fame outside the space world, though Joe Walker did pilot it up an unprecedented sixty-seven miles high. But for better or worse--Gary thought worse--in 1961 President Kennedy announced we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and over the few minutes it took Kennedy to deliver his fateful speech, the X program effectively got dropped. Kennedy said, "We go to the moon and do other things not because they are easy but because they are hard," which, to Gary's mind, was really code for saying we go to the moon not to go to the moon but to prove we can deliver a warhead anywhere we damn well please. (Tapes recently released by the JFK Library record Kennedy saying in private to then-NASA chief James Webb, "Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied to getting to the moon ahead of the Russians. . . . Except defense, it is the top priority of the United States government. Otherwise, we couldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space.") But as Kennedy addressed the public, space immediately switched from a place to a national program. Leaving Earth as Spam in a can was clearly the way to go.

- About the author -

Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Outside magazine, and frequently writes for Vogue and other publications. She is the recipient of a New York Press Club Award in feature reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award in travel writing, and a GLAAD Media Award for coverage of LGBT issues. In addition, her work has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, a James Beard Award, and a Dart Award for coverage of trauma. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.

More from Elizabeth Weil

They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship


They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

— Published by Bantam —