This vision fascinated Benson, who spent a number of his early years on a cattle ranch in Kansas, where many a night he had stared at the sky's glittering wonders "with my little Golden Book of Astronomy, trying to memorize all the constellations, reading and rereading about all the planets and asteroids:' As a preteen, he had devoured science fiction. But computers had come to the forefront of his interests, and by the time he got his college degree (in geology), he had taught himself to be a programmer. A job offer took him to Washington, D.C., which Benson says felt like "the capital of the world." Times were chaotic. The United States was losing the war in Vietnam; Watergate was tainting the Nixon administration. "I moved right into that turmoil, and it was followed fairly quickly by the energy crisis." All this made him "realize that I didn't understand much about the world."
Friends introduced him to a book about the limits to modern industrial growth, and it led him to read "an entire roomful of books." By the time he completed his autodidactic odyssey, he had become an environmentalist and begun work on a master's degree in urban planning. Eventually, he got a job with the federal agency that under Jimmy Carter became the Department of Energy; he worked behind the scenes and Carter's campaign and helped draft the Georgian's energy-policy statement. Today Benson thinks it's comical that he's working in an area -- the commercial exploitation of space -- where environmentalists tend to be regarded with suspicion. Yet he still thinks of himself as a champion of the Earth. "I spent a significant portion of my life in poverty being an environmentalist and a safe, renewable-energy activist."
At one point, he even formed his own Institute for Ecological Policies, and he wrote three books for it, including a how-to manual to help people come up with local energy plans. By traveling the country, giving speeches, and doing grassroots organizing, Benson sold 25,000 copies at $15 apiece. "That's how I supported myself for a couple of years." He also had a minor career in politics. "I showed Jerry Brown all around New England. I was involved in Senator Cranston's presidential campaign, I ran for the Virginia House of Delegates and lost by 200 votes." But when Reagan took office, funding for environmental activities dried up. At the same time, Benson's children were approaching college age." I figured that I'd better get serious about making money." So he founded the first of a couple of software companies.
In 1991, when he read the article about "El Dorado in the sky," he was up to his ears in running these enterprises, so he merely clipped the news report and filed it away. Four years later, however, he sold his main company, Compusearch, "for millions. I didn't need to work again." For about six months, he traveled, but "that was enough to convince me that I needed something else to do. I was 5 years old, and if I live another 50 years, travel would get real old real fast. I like creating things."
Given his lifelong interest in science, technology, and astronomy, Benson says it was natural he would begin thinking about space as a business. He spent all of 1996 "reading and exploring and thinking and getting to know people over the Internet." It was during this period that he unearths the clipping about the asteroid 1986 DA, and when he contacted Ostro, the scientist in the article, Ostro suggested that Benson talk with an Arizona astrononomer named John Lewis.
Lewis had edited a scholarly work called Resources of Near-Earth Space that included much of what was known (in 1993) about the so-called near-Earth objects. "The main asteroid belt is between Mars and Jupiter," Benson explains. That's quite a ways out there. It's very dark and pretty distant from the sun. However, scientists have come to realize that there's a minor asteroid belt between Earth and Mars." 'That's good news and bad, he says. The bad news is that the nearness of these bodies increases our chance of smacking into one -- with catastrophic consequences. The good news is that "it brings a lot of potentially very wealthy objects close to Earth."
But so what? "Say the asteroid 1986 DA is worth more than a trillion dollars. How do you get to it?" Benson wondered, "Who actually goes out into space?" When he researched that question, he learned that $2 billion of NASA's $3.5 billion Office of Space Science pays for the collection of scientific data. "I asked myself, 'Well, who builds those missions?' And it turns out that it's companies and universities. They use parts and components anybody can buy. So what I realized was, hey, there's no big secret to this. Anybody can buy the parts. Anybody can buy a launch vehicle. Anybody can send anything into space. It takes a big amount of money. But anybody can do it. So it's a business opportunity!"
As Benson talked to Ostro and studied a second book that John Lewis had written for a general audience (Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets), Benson's thinking changed about where opportunity might lie. The question of how to extract mineral riches from asteroids and get the riches back to Earth stumped him. But both Ostro and Lewis pointed out that the near-Earth objects harbor something even more precious: water.
In a recent phone conversation, Ostro told me that about 6 percent of the estimated 100 million near-Earth objects are probably "extinct comets" -- comets that have lost their gassy tails and become covered with dust and sand and gravel. "They're space icebergs!" Benson says. "My imagination can figure out what to do with them. Latch onto the surface, poke a drill down in there, heat it up, and draw the water out. Or chip away the surface and pull out a block of ice. In space, you don't even need a tank. You can put the water in a trash bag."