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Starting Small

Initial plans for Benson’s Near Earth Asteroid Project, or NEAP, call for a hexagonal craft 1 meter tall and 1.8 meters across to rendezvous with one of the 450 asteroids known to pass near Earth. It will deposit an instrument to analyze the mineral content for possible future mining-perhaps of metals for construction of research facilities or power stations near the asteroid, or hydrogen and oxygen to make fuel or water. Even ordinary earth elements become exorbitantly expensive if they have to be launched from Earth, so space mining of otherwise mundane materials could be profitable-if outer-space construction were ever to become routine.

Other entrepreneurs have talked about private space missions. But most of them have foundered on the shoals of very high initial investments. The key to SpaceDev’s chances of success is Benson’s intention to build, launch and operate the first mission on a budget of under $50 million-less than one-tenth of what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) frequently spent on a single craft, until recent budget cuts trimmed their sails. To achieve these economies, the NEAP craft will use what Benson proudly calls “trailing-edge technology”: prefabricated solar arrays, electronics, cameras and so forth. “We’re proud of the fact we’re not doing anything new,” Benson says. “That all increases the chances of success.” And with a price list of cargo space and scientific data that totals $120 million, Benson sees the potential to turn a profit beginning with the very first mission.

Not surprisingly for such a cutting-edge venture, no contracts have yet been signed. But already, SpaceDev announced in May, seven researchers have filed notices of intent that make them eligible to apply to NASA for funding to buy a ride on the NEAP craft. For each notice that results in a NASA-approved proposal, SpaceDev would earn $10 million to $12 million in revenue.

Although skeptics might question whether a software entrepreneur has the expertise to get into space, Benson has managed to convince a number of people well qualified in space science. He first enlisted James Arnold, director of UC’s California Space Institute. Arnold, a senior science adviser on the Apollo missions, met Benson at a conference on potential uses of the moon in December 1996. Initially skeptical, Arnold was soon impressed by Benson’s knowledge, energy and business acumen. “It turned out to be a good fit,” Arnold remarks, “and we have passed one milestone after another.” Since the spring of 1997, a handful of scientists and students at UC San Diego have also been working to develop plans for the mission.

Scientific expertise, though crucial, won’t be enough to get this mission off the ground; managerial know-how will also be required in spades. To fill that gap, SpaceDev acquired a small San Diego aerospace firm called Integrated Space Systems (ISS) in a stock trade this February to manage the mission development schedule and integrate the NEAP craft into a rocket. ISS’s business, though modest, is already profitable. Even so, the months ahead are critical to SpaceDev’s success, as it must meet deadlines for fabricating the craft and hiring a seasoned mission manager, all the while courting prospective buyers of cargo space in the vehicle.

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