The true adventures of a space buccaneer

"I think space will happen," Jim Benson says. "People will move off the planet." And when they do, he wants a piece of the action.

By Frank Houston
Published August 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Space may still be the final frontier, but few of us associate the cosmos with the kind of daring exploits that once grabbed headlines. The dreamy futurism inspired by the space race has been replaced by a warm glow of nostalgia. Mercury and Apollo exist as cultural relics alongside "Star Trek," inviting us to look back, not ahead, feeding a seemingly endless appetite for reruns. Space entrepreneur Jim Benson, for one, has had enough. To Benson, the marking of the 30th anniversary of the moon landing in July seemed less a celebration than "a wake" -- "Something died 30 years ago and we're still pining away for it," he said. "Young people have gone through two generations of disappointment in the space program. It's clear that the government is not doing it, can't do it, and it's up to the private sector to make it happen."

Benson, who sold his software company in 1996 and retired a millionaire at age 50, thinks the problem is simple, and he repeats his solution like a mantra: "Space is a place, not a government program." In 1997, bored after a year of retirement, he founded SpaceDev, the world's first commercial space exploration company. SpaceDev plans to design, build and launch a series of spacecraft, conducting missions with no direct government subsidies. Even more revolutionary, Benson is promising his shareholders a healthy profit at the end of each mission. "We're not a charity," he says. "We can't afford not to make a profit."


Slowly but surely, the seeds of capitalism are spreading into the heavens. Benson, a conservationist who worked in the early days of the federal Energy Department during the Ford and Carter administrations, represents the beginning of a wave that could soon rival the upstart dreams of Silicon Valley in the 1980s. The commercialization of space has yet to impress Wall Street, but the public sector -- from Congress to NASA to the White House -- has embraced the idea that business will lead the next great space age. A bill being hammered out in the House of Representatives would require NASA to stay out of any activities where its involvement would preclude that of the private sector. In other words, NASA would have to either facilitate commerce or get out of its way. Many people, including businessmen and scientists, see a brand-new industry on the horizon. Benson is aiming to be one of its captains.

This fall, SpaceDev will begin building a miniature spacecraft that will launch in late 2001 and land on a near-Earth asteroid called 4660 Nereus. The Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) will collect scientific data -- for a price -- and will claim ownership of Nereus in a bid to establish private property rights in space, since no one ever has, and no law says you can't. The mission, which is purely profit-driven, was urged on Benson by the scientific community, including astronomers at the cutting-edge Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology that defines and conducts most deep-space missions for NASA. Nereus, which is a half-mile across and travels in a solar orbit between Earth and Mars, will be extremely close to us in January 2002. The asteroid is a floating mountain of stainless steel, gold, and platinum. It will be Benson's staging ground for one of the century's most innovative experiments in capitalism.

An early computer enthusiast, Benson earned a degree in geology from the University of Missouri in 1971 and took a programming job in Washington the next year. A neighbor gave him a copy of a study called "The Limits to Growth," an apocalyptic warning about the consequences of global warming and the depletion of natural resources. Already disillusioned by the Vietnam War, Benson's eyes were opened to conservationism and the potential future uses of space as the escape route from a doomed planet. He quit his computer job and went to work for the Solar Energy Division of ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Administration, forerunner to the Energy Department. He helped analyze President Gerald Ford's National Energy Plan and gave it poor marks for ignoring the potential of solar energy, and he later advised Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign on environmental issues.


At the newly named Energy Department, Benson began to clash with superiors, and left government work to become an independent computer programmer. He founded Compusearch Software Systems in McLean, Va., in 1984. The company pioneered commercial PC-based full-text searching, a precursor to today's Web search engines. It was profitable every year until Benson sold it in 1995 for several million dollars and moved to Colorado with his wife.

But Benson grew restless. So he started reading up on his old avocation, astronomy, and began looking for ways to meld it with his business acumen. "I've always liked science and technology and I've always liked astronomy, ever since I saw the rings of Saturn through a department-store telescope," he told me. "I've been a businessman all my life, so when I think about space, I think about business." Benson did the first thing any good businessman would: He defined a market, realizing that the NASA budget represented "one or two billion dollars" that taxpayers were forking out annually "to collect data in space," since missions mainly produce material for scientists to analyze. Benson decided to re-allocate some of those funds.

At the same time SpaceDev was forming, NASA was looking for ways to get out of routine space matters and into forging new technologies expensive enough to require government funding. As a start, NASA had begun to transfer oversight of its shuttle missions to a private consortium called the United Space Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin is spearheading a cost-cutting campaign with a series of "Discovery" missions, small-scale spacecraft designed to proceed from development to flight in three years or less and cost under $150 million. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), NASA's ongoing mission to the asteroid Eros, is the first of these. Benson finds NEAR to be "a good mission to try to emulate." NEAR won't land on the asteroid, but will orbit around Eros for a year once the two cross paths a second time, in February 2000. (The first time, NEAR failed to fire its main engine, missing an earlier opportunity to orbit.) Benson's mission, he hopes, will do more for less, landing on Nereus for under $50 million.


How? With low administrative costs, no red tape, and technological innovations that have resulted in miniaturization. Whereas NEAR weighed in at 2,000 kg, NEAP will weigh 200 kg. NASA's spacecraft required a $50 million launch vehicle, but Benson plans to send his up for between $1.5 million and $6 million. SpaceDev will collect million-dollar research fees according to a published price list from scientists (many of whom will get their funding from NASA), and is also looking into corporate sponsorship (prices for logos, which may adorn the NEAP spacecraft, are negotiable). Construction on NEAP begins in October, using off-the-shelf components. "Most spacecraft are made of commercially available products," says Benson. "I don't know if the public is aware of that, but they ought to be." Future spacecraft will be standardized, "to make many more in the coming years and keep the cost down."

When SpaceDev launched in 1997, much of the media focused on the company's intention to declare mining rights on the mineral-rich Nereus. In 1991, Benson had been alerted to the value of natural resources in space in an article by Steve Ostro of JPL, a leading radar astronomer. Ostro examined a near-Earth asteroid and determined that it contained naturally occurring stainless steel. (Ostro would later say of SpaceDev, "As a privately funded commercial enterprise, it marks the dawn of a space 'gold rush' with tremendous positive long-term importance to human civilization.") But Benson began to realize the impracticality of bringing tons of minerals back into the atmosphere. Where would they land?


Luckily, scientists handed Benson a new idea when they began to pay serious attention to near-Earth objects in our corner of the universe, soon determining there may be as many as 100,000, in orbits similar to Earth's. Scientists believe that as many as 20 percent of them are dormant comet cores, or "space icebergs," containing water, which can be electrolyzed into oxygen and hydrogen. "And that's rocket fuel," Benson says confidently. "Without water in space nothing is possible. With water in space, everything is possible: water supports life, grows food, and serves as energy." Finding a source of rocket propellant in space "could be a major economic attraction," Benson has said.

In terms of economic attractions, the new industry could use a boost. Take Iridium, the satellite telephone company with much-publicized money problems. Iridium spent $5 billion launching its global satellite network, but the bottom fell out when it found itself 400,000 customers shy of the 500,000 it needed to break even. In August the company sought bankruptcy protection after going into default on its $1.5 billion debt. I asked Benson what he thought of the debacle. "How could anybody in their right mind have thought that thing would work?" he said, with true bafflement. "It was wildly expensive and under-powered, and it's not servicing an under-serviced market. How can anyone expect to spend $5 billion on something and then sell $1,500-to-$2,000 telephones and charge $8 a minute?"

Benson rightfully distanced his company from the satellite-telephone industry, but conceded that "Iridium has hurt the market. It has hurt the Wall Street interest in these things." He knows this problem firsthand. Last April, Benson ended a protracted tussle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had accused him of overstating SpaceDev's earnings potential to investors. In a settlement with the SEC, he agreed to tone down his projections. The usually expansive Benson grew terse when I asked about the run-in: "It's ancient history and I have nothing to say about it." For Benson, a stern businessman who prides himself on his nose for financial order, the criticism still stings. Still, he admits, "You never know who the winners and losers are going to be -- SpaceDev is just another risky startup."


For a risky startup, a lot of important people are in Benson's corner, including NASA's Goldin, who has said of the NEAP mission, "This is a hell of a courageous thing to do. It will get people's attention focused on the frontier still to be conquered."

Benson has also hired some of the best in the field. They include a board of directors with several former NASA officials and mission planners and a chief mission architect, Rex Ridenoure, who spent more than a decade at JPL and before that held positions with the Hughes Space and Communications and Lockheed. Benson himself is chairman of the board, president and CEO, and is active in SpaceDev's marketing and sales.

Instead of the vision of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke -- Pan Am flights to an orbiting space station -- the real 2001 will see the launch of NEAP, the potential harbinger of a new age that may be stranger than fiction. The NEAP mission will observe Nereus over a period of one to three months, during which the spacecraft will drop scientific instruments on the surface. In July 2002, NEAP will land on the asteroid, and SpaceDev will claim ownership of it. Since the only law currently governing space is the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which deals with issues of national sovereignty in space, Benson may establish a legal precedent for extraterrestrial property rights. As astronomer, professor and writer Timothy Ferris said, "The laws won't be written in earnest until some buccaneer forces them to be." Benson clearly relishes the thought of being that space-age pirate.


But SpaceDev doesn't spring solely from a capitalistic urge. "I've been an environmentalist most of my life," Benson points out. While he initially conceived of the new company as "a way to save natural resources on Earth" by importing them from space, the mission still resonates with the idealist in Benson, only for different reasons. "I think space will happen. People will move off the planet," he said. "We'll wind up with self-sustaining human settlements off the earth that in some ways will be valuable, because they will create gene pools." In the event of "some catastrophe on earth in the future, if there are self-sustaining settlements out in space or on other planets or moons, then the human race will go on." And of course, if Benson has his way in space, the profit margins will go up.

Frank Houston

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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