Playing with the Big Boys
In addition to shoring up his logistical base and forming alliances among researchers, Benson has already impressed another critical constituency: NASA. The agency has discussed the possibility of helping SpaceDev by allowing the company to use NASA’s network of deep space tracking stations for sending and receiving radio communications with the robotic spacecraft. SpaceDev might pay for the time outright, or try to barter for it with data from radio science experiments using the craft.
“I think Jim has put together a very credible approach to what would be the first private exploratory mission,” says Carl Pilcher, a NASA assistant associate administrator for space science. “If he can pull it off, it will be an interesting precedent for a new way to acquire scientific data.” Pilcher praised the abilities of the scientists involved and their plan, saying he believes they “are capable of delivering on what they promise.”
Benson believes that if he can get one craft into space, other opportunities will follow. Perhaps SpaceDev would help NASA in its plan to explore Mars by providing some services faster and at a lower cost than NASA can, he says. Possibilities include ferrying a communications relay satellite into orbit around the planet, or depositing equipment on Mars that would mix hydrogen and oxygen to produce fuel. NASA’s Pilcher says the agency would listen to arguments for such deeper private participation.
NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans, Alan M. Ladwig, shares Benson’s belief that the time is right for private ventures into space. “If we are to get the true economic benefits of space, the private sector has to get involved, so we encourage that,” Ladwig says. “It’s going to happen sooner or later.” But Ladwig cautions that SpaceDev will have to find markets beyond NASA.
Finding a suitable market has been a challenge for Benson’s competitors in the business of launching private space missions. Michael Simon, the president of San Diego-based International Space Enterprises, has firsthand experience with the problem. Simon wanted to launch payloads to the moon on Russian rockets. But finding it expensive and having few takers, his company is now designing hybrid-power road vehicles. Though Simon praises Benson for shrewd organization and for keeping startup costs low, he adds that “for Benson it comes down to the same question that haunts all of us in the industry: Is there a market?’ And if there is, yes, he can pull it off.”
For his part, Benson remains a believer. A veteran of the computer revolution, he believes the private space economy-using the energy of the private sector and building on the contributions of the government agencies that pioneered the field-might develop rapidly and surprise people, as the computer industry did two decades ago. In this scenario, he believes, SpaceDev could be midwife to a broader human presence in space, an era in which people not only explore but also build, work and perhaps even live beyond the confines of Earth.
Benson wears a wrist-watch that is already counting down the seconds until SpaceDev’s first liftoff, tentatively scheduled for October 3, 2000. “This could be a wake-up call,” he says, “that the time has come to commercialize space.”