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Staring into Space

Entrepreneur Jim Benson hopes his mission to the asteroids will usher in an era of private–and profitable–exploration of space.

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.

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.

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.

Any Takers?

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.”

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