Jim Benson, founder of the world's first private space-exploration company, has a knack for coming up with slogans. "We put the 'Pow' in Poway" is one of the things he likes to say. Poway is where Benson's enterprise, SpaceDev, is located, and for almost a year, SpaceDev employees have tested rocket motors in a large bay next to the company parking lot on Stowe Drive. In the future, Benson says, the local facility will direct prospecting missions to the near-Earth asteroid belt that will make him and his stockholders rich.
"If we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay." That's another Benson slogan, as is "Space is a place, not a government program." When he voices the latter, Benson usually goes on to explain his view that Americans have been brainwashed to think that only NASA can mount space missions. "NASA wants people to believe that space is dangerous, risky, expensive, and you just can't go there unless you're a NASA-blessed astronaut with holy water sprinkled on you!" He thinks the reason NASA opposed L.A. businessman Dennis Tito's May tourist jaunt to the International Space Station is because "it undermined their carefully built, 30-year space priesthood." Tito's trip cracked the psychological barrier that Benson believes is the main hindrance to space exploration. That's why he's developed yet another slogan: "Any country, company, or person can do a deep-space mission if they can afford a private jet or a mega-yacht."
If you were to glance at the photo of Benson on SpaceDev's website, you might think him a bit stodgy. The image hints at a receding hairline, and there's a fleshy solidity to his face that evokes the persona of a well-fed aerospace executive clad in his dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie. In person, however; Benson seems both younger and lighter. It's not just the leanness of his body but his buoyant demeanor, his irrepressible enthusiasms, that belie his years. At 56, he has more energy than most college students.
I first met him in a sea of such young people in Hollywood at an event billed as Yuri's Night. This was on April 12, the anniversary of the first human journey into space. In fact, it was the 40th anniversary of the historic flight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and in honor of the occasion, parties were planned on all seven continents, in 60 different venues. The L.A. bash, which was the biggest, took place at the Hollywood Palace, and Benson not only donated money for it but also stayed up late nights to create a musical and pictorial tribute to Gagarin that was to be projected by a computer system onto a screen at the back of the ballroom. But the organizers didn't
have the right equipment to play his CD, so his images flashed by without the Beatles music he had spent 30 hours synchronizing with them. When this happened, he looked crestfallen for a few moments, but then he shrugged it off. He lent me the CD, saying to enjoy it.
A few days later, I returned it to him in Poway. The company's building is a newish, 25,000-square-foot structure that looks as though it were designed for a hot young research-and-development group. But Benson says it was built to be an indoor rifle range. "The wealthy guy who bought it lavished a lot of money on it.. .. Then things didn't work out, and he was left with a $3 million building that we bought for less than half of that."
All traces of the rifle range are gone. The interior looks like a professional office building, albeit an almost empty one, given that SpaceDev has only about 20 employees. There's no receptionist; you walk in and wander around until you bump into someone. Benson's office is not far from the entrance.
I found him on the speaker phone, chatting up an Orange County venture capitalist. When he conluded the call,he introduced me to Kristine, an eighth-grade student at Mesa Verde Middle School She and her mother had walked into SpaceDev the previous week seeking information for an academic project, and the company president on impulse had invited the schoolgirl to spend a day with him at work. "There aren't many women in space engineering," Benson explained. "So if I can motivate one eighth grader, and she goes into engineering and business and space, I think in some
ways the world will be a little bit better off!"
The girl looked overwhelmed but Benson seemed unabashed. He grabbed a dark object roughly the size and shape of a large potato. "This is an asteroid," he said "It was the core of a planet that tried to form between Mars and Jupiter, and it got blasted apart."
He urged me to hold it, and I stroked the smooth indentations that covered its ebony-and-rust-colored surface. Benson said that the pits had formed as the asteroidstreaked through the Earth's atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour. "Pretty slick, huh?" he said. "Four and a half billion years old. That's probably the oldest thing you'll ever touch in your life!" Even more striking than its texture or its age was its weight - twice what its size seemed to warrant.
Benson explained that it was made of iron and nickel. "Which makes it a form of stainless steel." Heavier metals sink to the cores of planets. "So this piece of naturally occurring stainless steel has a higher concentration of gold and the platinum group of metals than any ore being mined anywhere in the world. On the order of 100 to 1000 times the concentration."
Reading about an asteroid is what started Benson on the road to founding SpaceDev. That was in 1991, when he lived in Virginia. One day the Washington Post ran an article on the work of scientist Steve Ostro at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Ostro was using radar to analyze the chemistry of planetary bodies, and he had just determined that a mile-in-diameter asteroid called 1986 DA was "a mountain of stainless steel," in Beneson's words. The article stated that the gold alone was worth about $120 billion and the platinum nearly a trillion. "And that's just one asteroid," Benson says.