Sipping a soft drink outside a San Diego coffee shop, Jim Benson puts a black chunk of iron on the white table in front of him. The rock is a piece of an asteroid, a talisman Benson carries as a reminder of the mineral riches that await in outer space. And this isn’t an abstract interest: Benson intends his young company, Space Development Co., or SpaceDev, to be “the first publicly traded company in the business of exploring space.”
If SpaceDev succeeds, Benson says, it might be quite profitable. But in his view, there’s more to the venture than boosting his stockholders’ profits. Indeed, he says, SpaceDev could usher in a new sector of the economy-private space ventures-that might one day have the energy and growth potential of the early software industry. SpaceDev, he believes, could hasten the economic development of the high frontier.
To profitably go where only large government agencies have gone before might sound like a pipe dream, but the 53-year-old Colorado businessman is a relentless pragmatist who has a track record of success as an entrepreneur. At 50, Benson retired a millionaire after owning and operating two software companies. He sold both and set out to travel but quickly grew bored with terrestrial tourism. It was then that Benson asked himself two important questions: What do I enjoy, and what am I good at? The answers led him back to his childhood passions for science and outer space. As a youth, Benson recalls, he signed up for a science fiction book club. A benefit of enrollment was having his name placed on a list of people who wanted to go to outer space when travel became routine. He still has the enrollment card in his wallet. “Forty-two years later I’m still waiting,” he says, “so maybe I can do it myself.”
After consulting planetary scientists and reading up about space, Benson founded SpaceDev to aim for asteroids-little-examined and, he believes, achievable targets for exploration and eventually mining. He moved swiftly to put in place a business plan that many in the science and business community say just might work.
Teamed with researchers from the University of California (UC), Benson last September announced plans to launch bare-bones missions to rendezvous with near-Earth asteroids and inventory their mineral contents. But the craft will also have cargo space for other experiments, making it a sort of deep space truck. Planning to launch within two years, Benson wants to meet what his advisers believe is a pent-up demand in the scientific community to get experiments to space. He hopes this long-haul service will bring profits in the short term, before any mining program is up and running.