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Jim Benson of Poway wants to send you into orbit with SpaceDev

Rich man in Heaven

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.

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."

No one yet knows the precise location of any extinct comet that is easily accessible from Earth. However, scientists have pinpointed the locations of some of the five to ten million near-Earth asteroids that are as large as ten meters across. They're called "carbonaceous chondrites," according to Ostro. "It's this black stuff," he says, a primitive kind of meteorite material composed, in part, of water. Ostro says if you heat a carbonaceous chondrite up to a few hundred degrees centigrade, you liberate the water from the salts and silicates to which it is chemically bound "In the cold of space, the water would condense on anything solid," Ostro explained. Furthermore, as you continue heating the material, it yields other valuable substances. "You get organic chemicals that can be used to make fuel. People have done experiments where they've grown microorganisms and plant-tissue cultures in carbonaceous chondrites. So the stuff has nutrient value; you can think of it as potting Prototype o fhybrid-motor-powered vehicle soil. You have all the resources that you might need in the carbonaceous-chondritic asteroids."

Many of these are within easy reach of the Earth. "Right now," Ostro says, "the most accessible object that we know in the solar system -- with a secure orbit -- is a tiny asteroid probably about the size of a baseball diamond, a spheroidal object named 1998 KY26.1t looks like it's a carbonaceous chondrite." If you take a basketball-size chunk of it and you distill it, ''You can get enough water to keep you alive for a day. Water and oxygen. And it's easy to do,' Ostro says. Think of that basketball-sized chunk as life-support for one person per day, he directs. "KY26 is 100 times the diameter of that ball, so it has a million times the volume, so it's life-support for a million person/days. In other words, it could keep 1000 people alive for 100 days. Or it could keep a couple dozen people alive for their entire lives."

Ostro believes that only when the infrastructure has been created to tap such resources will the chasm between reality and fantasy about space travel be bridged. And he thinks that's destined to happen. Exploration is the inspiration that fuels civilization, he asserts, quoting Bob Dylan: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Besides its ability to support human life, water in space is "white gold" for another reason, Benson told me. It's made of hydrogen and oxygen. ''And do you know what the main shuttle engines burn when the shuttle takes off? Oxygen and hydrogen!" Benson quotes scientist and writer Robert Heinlein, who 50 years ago said, "When we reach Earth orbit, we're halfway to anywhere." What Heinlein meant, Benson says, was that "the amount of energy to get to Earth orbit is the same as the amount of energy to get anywhere else in the Solar system. The trouble is, when we get to Earth orbit, our tank's empty. We're out of gas." Tapping the water content of the near-Earth asteroids would give humanity the gas stations it needs to go where no human has ever gone before.

Benson claims it won't take fancy technology to transform the water into rocket fuel. "We already know how to make solar furnaces on Earth to heat The $10 million prize will go to the creators of the first private vehicle that flies into suborbital space.

Besides its ability to support human life, water in space is "white gold" for another reason, Benson told me. It's made of hydrogen and oxygen. ''And do you know what the main shuttle engines burn when the shuttle takes off? Oxygen and hydrogen!" Benson quotes scientist and writer Robert Heinlein, who 50 years ago said, "When we reach Earth orbit, we're halfway to anywhere." What Heinlein meant, Benson says, was that "the amount of energy to get to Earth orbit is the same as the amount of energy to get anywhere else in the Solar system. The trouble is, when we get to Earth orbit, our tank's empty. We're out of gas." Tapping the water content of the near-Earth asteroids would give humanity the gas stations it needs to go where no human has ever gone before.

Benson claims it won't take fancy technology to transform the water into rocket fuel. "We already know how to make solar furnaces on Earth to heat things up to thousands of degrees. You take the same little thing that you can build in your garage up to space and focus it on the combustion chamber ofa bag of water. You're going to be ejecting superheated steam at the same velocity as the shuttle main engine burns oxygen and hydrogen. That means you have the same propulsive capability in space with water and a solar lens that you do with billion-dollar motors on the shuttle. When you reduce it down to what's called a 'rocket equation,' it's the same thrust."

Excited by such reflections, Benson began attending space conferences, including one in San Diego in November 1996. That's where he met UCSD professor Jim Arnold, a founding director of the California Space Institute (which is headquartered at UCSD). A few days later, Benson showed up at the institute "and wanted to talk about his ideas;' Arnold recalls. "We had speculated earlier that somebody was going to come along sometime who wanted to run a private space mission. And here was this gentleman who came along sooner than we expected. He was -- and is -- an interesting guy." Benson, in turn, says Arnold told him, "This would make our dreams come true. Everyone wants to do missions the right way: small, inexpensive, and cheap. But we butt our heads against the brick wall of NASA:'Arnold volunteered to put together a group to study the feasibility of a private mission to a near-Earth object. That group eventually included 12 graduate and undergraduate students, a couple of professors, and some space-industry veterans, "San Diego is full of retired and fired space engineers since General Dynamics closed down," Arnold elaborates. ''And most of them prefer doing interesting space things to playing golf, so they're willing to come and share." As for the students, Arnold felt that "even if this turned out to be a pipe dream, the students were going to get a lot of useful experience in trying to do a project of this difficulty and originality."

In the eight months that followed, the UCSD team created a preliminary design fora little spacecraft and for the asteroid mission, along with a preliminary estimate of the cost. A few elements of Benson's original vision changed. Instead of flying to 1986 DA, the group decided a better target was an asteroid called Nereus, Benson also modified his business plan to include the idea of renting room on the spacecraft for scientific work. A NASA mission inspired his thinking about this, he says. "NASA in February of 1996 had launched NEAR-the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous." The $225 million tab covered the cost of sending a spacecraft carrying six scientific instruments to a near-Earth asteroid "How much is that science worth? Per instrument?" Benson answers: almost $40 million apiece. "That's the street price for asteroid data; So I said to myself, well, wait a minute. Can the private sector do things more effectively than government! How much cheaper could we do it?" By mounting a private mission to an asteroid, Benson would be creating a kind of "trucking company:' Arnold says, "something that would be very attractive -- because of the lower cost -- to people who wanted to do space missions?" In the late spring of 1997, Benson got a chance to in make that pitch to one. of the most important men in the American space-program, Wes Huntress. Huntress was then in charge of NASA's $3.5billion space science budget, and Benson says he told him, "I'll go raise the money, and I'll bring back science that's cheaper than $40 million per data set.... If NASA gets more science per dollar, and if I make a profit, everybody wins -- the taxpayers, NASA, the scientists, me, and my shareholders.

"I had a lot of folks come through my door who said they had such a deal for me," says Huntress (who left NASA in 1998 to become the director of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C.). Huntress says almost everyone of those visitors told him all they needed was for NASA to give them 30 percent of their start-up costs, "Well, that's not commercial space," Huntress harrumphs. "That's called doing business with the government." In contrast, Benson "came in and said, 'I don't want any money from you now. But I'm in the commercial business, and there's what I want to do.' I was willing to listen on that basis. He was the only one who had the right idea, who want to be in the commercial business and not become just another government contractor feeding off the public trough."

Huntress offered his support, and indeed he later initiated changes in NASA's Discovery Program that made it possible for scientists to seek NASA funds for science experiments that would fly aboard commercial missions. In August 1997, Benson got more good news when the UCSD group concluded it was feasible to send a mission to an asteroid for $25 million.

"That was the basis of me forming SpacelDev" Benson says. Early in September, he held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. at which both UCSD's Jim Arnold and John Lewis (the Mining the Sky author offered enthusiastic testimony. The company would "launch the world's first private spacecraft and land on a near-Earth asteroid for the purpose of collecting scientific data and to stake a claim for commercial mining of its valuable mineral resources," the press release stated, adding, "Benson plans to accomplish his goal by mid-year 2000."

Benson says he and his wife had visited San Diego several times over the years. They loved the area, and when the UCSD group was conducting its feasibility study, Benson became acquainted with a San Diego aerospace company called Integrated Space Systems. It specialized in launch-vehicle and spacecraft design and analysis. In 1998, he bought the company, and that purchase led him to locate his new venture here.

As 1998 got under way, Benson concentrated on lining up payloads for the asteroid mission. He says seven universities wrote letters to NASA declaring their intention to submit proposals, and three of them- Berkeley, Utah State, and Carnegie Mellon - actually did so. "They went through the whole process, describing the science instruments and how they were going to get a cheap ride to a valuable near-Earth object," In the summer of 1998, Benson hired Tony Spear, the project manager for the successful Mars Pathfinder mission, to further evaluate SpaceDev's mission plans. "Tony had left JPL, and he brought about a dozen of his favorite engineers in. They did a real quick analysis of our mission and confirmed that, yes, it was feasible. They said we had done a good job technically of designing it, and it would cost less than $50 million." Benson was still convinced he could do the job for half that amount.

SpaceDev appeared to be headed for the stars. In October 1998, an article in the New Yorker described how the company planned to launch its Near Earth Asteroid Prospector in April 2001 (by then the date had slipped a bit from what Benson had announced at his founding press conference). The expedition would "mark the beginning of an extraterrestrial industrial revolution," the article predicted, buttressing those statements with glowing commentary from close to a dozen leading authorities on space. Huntress, for example, was described as believing that Benson had "the potential to he a historic figure -- the Henry Ford of the Twenty-First Century." Huntress's boss, Dan Goldin, NASA's top administrator, acknowledged that the government space agency was "so afraid of failure we spend billions of dollars protecting ourselves against it." Benson's project was "a hell of a courageous thing to do," the article quoted him.

It was NASA's midlevel bureaucrats who ultimately betrayed him, Benson says. The three detailed proposals "were all shot down." During NASA's "supposedly objective peer-review process," where the bureaucrats go behind closed doors to rate the science and technical competency of projects on a zero-to-ten scale, Benson says he got an.agitated late ... night call from one of the reviewers. "Jim, you won't believe what's going o here:' the man told him."These midlevel NASA bureaucrats are saying things like, 'What is this commercial mission bullshit? We cannot allow this to happen."

In the end, Benson says, "They torpedoed all three of the proposals, even though one of them got straight tens. The excuse on that was, 'Oh well. We can get a cheaper ridefor it on some other mission.' Which everybody knows is baloney." Today Benson vows, "If SpaceDev is successful and we fly cheaper planetary science missions, those bastards are out of jobs. I will see to it! It cost me $2 million of my own money and two years of my life, playing by NASA's rules,only to be screwed by those midlevel bureaucrats? Part of those two years was devoted to pursuing another NASA carrot, one that materialized in 1998. Benson says the Jet Propulsion Laborarorv that year hosted an open competition seeking answers to this fundamental question: If your spacecraft is limited to 200 kilograms (about 450 pounds) and if it's dropped off in a certain type of Earth orbit, can you get to Mars and do one of five different types of missions?

NASA wanted to know this because it was thinking of creating a series of "micromissions" to Mars. The idea was to use excess capacity in the FrenchAriane V launch vehicle, which typically takes big satellites up into geosynchronous Earth orbits. The nose cone of the French rocket has an adapter plate where tiny satellites could be attached. If the main satellite weighs less than what the rocket can lift, "Then why not put a bunch of little babies in there and launch them too?" Benson asks.

Late in 1998,SpaceDev won a $150,000 contract from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to spend six months studying the question. "We put a significant amount of our own money into it and went way beyond the minimum requirements:' Benson says, "We had to come up with a brand-new spacecraft design that weighed 200 kilograms, with these two mounting points side by side." It turned out it's so hard' to get to Mars that 85 percent of the weight of the little spacecraft would have to be reserved for propellant. But SpaceDev nonetheless found that "in most cases, 200 kilograms can find its way to Mars and do something productive."

The SpaceDev team determined that the craft's basic design "would be capable of performing 15 different interplanetary missions in the inner planets -- all the way from the sun to Mercury to Venus to Earth to the inner asteroid belt to Mars and to the beginning of the outer asteroid belt. We jokingly called it our space utility van -- SUV." In 1999, more good news came with the announcement that JPL had decided to pay for two Mars micromissions. "We thought, 'Fantastic!'" Benson recalls. "Finally, we're in the right place at the right time. We have an inside track: we just designed what it is JPL wants to buy." To add to its credibility, SpaceDev announced early in 1999 that it would be teaming up with Boeing to compete for the NASA business.

Then came the bad news. JPL revealed that it would award the highest number of points for a previous successful Mars mission. "That's only Lockheed,"Benson points out. "They're the only one." JPL added that it would give the second-highest number of points for other deep-space missions. "Well, that added two more: Ball Aerospace and Spectrum Astro. That was it. Only those three companies. And everybody else said, 'Why would I waste my time bidding?' Boeing couldn't win. SpaceDev couldn't win."

Ball Aerospace emerged the victor. But after two Mars missions crashed in late 1999, NASA postponed the micromission program. Since then SpaceDev's luck at winning business from the national space agency has taken a turn for the better. In April 2001, the company announced it would be part of a Boeing-led team that had been chosen to study options for a potential 2011 mission to Mars. And back in November 1999, SpaceDev learned it had won a much bigger contract to build what will be NASA's smallest mission ever -- a diminutive science probe known as the CHIPSat.

Benson first got a glimmer that the CHIPSat might come his way just a month or two after the disappointing news about the deck being stacked against him in the competition for the Mars micro missions. Around March 1999, he got a call from an astrophysicist at the University of California Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory named Mark Hurwitz. Hurwitz's professional work has focused on "the stuff between the stars."

Hurwitz explains that a hundred years ago, everyone thought space was empty -- a perfect vacuum. But by the 1920s, astronomers had begun to realize that in fact the vast interstellar regions contain microscopic grains of dust, along with hydrogen and helium gas. Even the densest concentrations of this gas - 1000 or so atoms per cubic centimeter - are much closer to a vacuum than anything we can make on Earth, according to Hurwitz. The least dense regions appear to contain only one atom per 100 cubic centimeters. "Make a little box with your hands," Hurwitz directs, by way of illustration, "and there would be only one atom in there."

In contrast, an empty coffee mug on Earth contains about 1500 quintillion (1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000) gas molecules.

Some of the gases of the "intersteller medium" are extremely hot, having kinetic temperatures of at least a million degrees. Astronomers believe that this gas is heated when stars explode. As the hot, low-density gas expands, it tends to compress pre-existing cooler, denser clouds, triggering the formation of new stars. But the astronomers still don't know many things about the hot gas and the process by which it cools. (For example, they'd like to know at what wavelength the majority of the power radiated by the local hot gas emerges. They'd like to know how it's distributed within 100 parsecs of the sun.) A better understanding of the cooling process - what Hurwitz's study is seeking - should lead to a better understanding of the origins of the stars.

In 1998, Hurwitz got the nod from NASA to create an instrument (the cosmic hot interstellar plasma spectrometer, a.k.a. CHIPS) to collect more information about the interstellar medium. The spectrometer has to do its work in space because "the ultraviolet light we're trying to see doesn't come through the Earth's atmosphere." As first conceived and proposed to NASA, the spectrometer was to have been attached as a scientific hitchhiker to a small communications satellite.

But "that scenario encountered programmatic difficulties," Hurwitz says,"and we ended up - with more or less the same amount of money - needing to suddenly acquire our own dedicated spacecraft." By around June 1999, he had selected SpaceDev from the handful of companies that submitted proposals to build a spacecraft to carry the spectrometer. The San Diego firm was "the most responsive .... They did the best job of showing how they'd meet our requirements," the astrophysicist says.

Today Hurwitz estimates the project will end up costing between $12 and $15 million, "cradle to grave - for every engineer's salary, every scientist's salary from start of mission through end of operations a year after launch. That's everything." It includes "development of the instrument. Development of the spacecraft. It's quite small for a freestanding project like this," Hurwiti contends. Of the total, SpaceDev should end up getting about $5 million.

NASA doesn't dole out those millions to Hurwitz (or SpaceDev) in one big advance. "There's a whole series of gates you have to go through," Hurwitz says. "The money comes in dollops from NASA."

But the project appears to be well underway. "We're on budget and on schedule," Benson says. His engineers have built all the subsystems, and they've wired them together as a "flat sat"; in other words, "They behave electronically as a satellite. So you can send commands to it. It responds. It checks the commands. It actuates things. It stores data." SpaceDev will handle mission control during the launch, and it will direct the satellite's operation for a year afterward. "We have already formed the Internet connections from our electronics lab to our mission-control center to Berkeley to the university in Australia where the other ground station will be." Benson says this September, the company's engineers will start bolting together the satellite pieces in a clean room that's been constructed in the Poway facility. Hurwitz is hoping to add the spectrometer to the package by November; then the whole "observatory will undergo environmental testing. The astrophysicist says "the launch scenario that we're marching toward now" would have the CHIPSat blasting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May or June next year, carried into orbit by a Delta rocket whose primary payload is a big NASA science satellite. Of SpaceDev's performance so far,Hurwitz says, "Many of their individual employees are just outstanding. They're doing better than anyone could reasonably expect." He adds that the San Diego firm's struggles to find other business have created "perhaps predictable tensions." But he believes NASA would like to see SpaceDev succeed with this project. "At some level, NASA is aware that there aren't a lot of marketplace participants from whom you can get a small satellite. And so if SpaceDev delivers this thing on schedule and it works, NASA would generally be pleased as punch." A successful launch "will be a very key milestone for the company," Benson agrees. "Because then you officially join the club that very select few who have actually put a successful satellite in orbit."

At the same time, Ben-son didn't form SpaceDev to put satellites in orbit. Since NASA got out of the communications-satellite business in the early 1990s, that activity has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, with more than 1700 commercial communications satellites expected to be circling the Earth by 2006. Benson never had the goal of competing with them; his vision was to open up deep space to profit-making operations.

Although CHIPSat has provided bread-and-butter income to support the company while it moves toward the grander vision, the latter still animates Benson. And he says he's been taking aggressive steps to pursue it. At the beginning of 2000, Spacelzev and Boeing announced they were teaming up to explore commercial missions beyond the Earth's orbit. "Boeing then spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars with SpaceDev looking at the possibilities," Benson says. The companies agreed that the asteroid prospector is still a reasonable possibility, "as are possible Mars missions." But Benson says they concluded that the most attractive project to start with was a spacecraft that would make. money by going to the moon.

"We'd already designed the spacecraft [for the Mars micromission]," Benson explains. "If this thing could get all the way to Mars from Earth orbit, carrying all this propellant, it could sure get to the moon and back again." Signals that would arrive at the rate of 10,000 bits per second from Mars could be received at a rate of 10 million bits per second from the moon, cc 'cause you're only a quarter of a million miles away, instead of a quarter of a billion miles. So we would be able to do live-streaming HDTV."

Benson's come to believe this would have "a lot of entertainment value," although he was skeptical at first. In the fall of 1997, he was having dinner in Washington, D.C., with Huntress (the former NASA honcho) and Spear (of Mars Pathfinder fame). "I got there a little bit late, and they both pounced on me," Benson recalls. "They said, 'Jim, do you have any idea how exciting it would be to have a lunar orbiter skimming over the surface of the moon at 4000 miles an hour?

It would be like Star Wars. You could see all the mountains and the craters and everything flying at you!" Benson says he did a double take. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Here are Tony Spear and Wes Huntress waving their hands in the air and talking about Star Wars and entertainment and high-definition TV, and I'm sitting here trying to talk to them about space science?' Honestly, it took me about two years to come around." Another believer in the entertainment value of a commercial lunar mission is John Lewis, the codirector of the Space Engineeing Center at the University of Arizona (and the author of the asteroid-mining books). Lewis thinks the lack of public interest in NASA's space-shuttle launches is understandable. Most of the things that NASA are doing "are just plain boring. Would you go out in the street to watch a Yellow Cab go by? They're too common," Lewis says the Mars Pathfinder mission, in contrast, provided a much better test of the infotainment potential of space. "NASA put the pictures from the Pathfinder and Rover on the Web as soon as they were received, and there were tens of millions of hits on that website. For a couple of weeks, that we weeks, that website was hit more than all of the porn sites in the country combined! There's enormous public interest in space out there."

Not everyone is as sanguine about the entertainment potential of space. Fonner NASA scientist Alan Binder points out that others have tried to exploit that interest, only to give up. Binder cites the example of the Gross brothers, Pasadena-based technology entrepreneurs who, after the success of the Pathfinder/Sojoumer mission, "got the bright idea to fly a Rover to the moon and more than and do it on the net...for pure entertainment purposes." Binder says they eventually "woke up to the fact that is hard to do." That's a truism with which Binder is all too familiar. After he left NASA, he worked without success for six years to obtain private funding for a moon mission; then in 1995 he launched the NASA-sponsored Lunar Prospector, which flew around the moon and collected scientific data for 19 months. Privately designed and managed, that effort has been the most cost-effective lunar and planetary mission ever flown, one that operated for a tenth of what it would have cost NASA. Binder descnbes himself as a friend and supporter of Benson; he sees both of them as kindred spirits working toward a common end. But Binder says, "I have a hard time believing that you can make

$100 million of revenue from an entertainment mission." He thinks you have to have a science-based company "and then you add the entertainment on. I know that you can make $5 million to $10 million from the entertainment side. But that doesn't pay for a mission, as far as I can see." (He says the Lunar Prospector cost $63 million.)

A SpaceDev-operated lunar mission would combine both science and entertainment components. "The first science experiment is being built while we speak." Benson told me one day early in June. He explained that Dr. Michael Drake, "the very creative and aggressive" director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, had obtained more than $100,000 (from the University of Arizona Foundation) to build a simple multiband imaging camera. It's being designed by Peter Smith, the man who created the Mars Pathfinder's cameras. Drake plans to lend this camera to SpaceDev, whose spacecraft will carry it to the moon and sell the data it generates to the highest bidder. "The Canadian space agency might buy it. A natural resources company might buy it." Benson says, adding that SpaceDev in turn hopes to pay Drake's lab a royalty from any data sales.

"This is a fundamental breakthrough in the way space science is done!" Benson exclaims. "We are breaking the paradigm .... Can you imagine scientists being able to do the science they want on their own time frame? With their own instruments built the way they ought to be built? It is totally liberating freedom!" The amount of human knowledge that comes back, he predicts, will gush forth instead of dribbling out.

SpaceDev is now looking for other science payloads. As for the entertainment component, "We're in the marketing phase right now."

But Benson isn't pinning all his hopes on the lunar mission. He believes in having lots of eggs in lots of baskets. In the course of designing the CHIPSat, his engineers found that existing radios for small satellites were too big and expensive for their needs. So they designed what Benson describes as "the world's smallest space-qualified S-band radio." This not only solved the team's immediate problem but also provided a potential new source of revenue. "We have, I believe, 14 sales prospects and 2 quotes outstanding," he told me last week. "We are pleasantly surprised at the huge amount of interest that's being shown us."

SpaceDev's team also has developed a "single-board computer" for the CHIPSat. Benson has done a tech sheet and put it on the website. But we believe when we do, it may receive even more interest because it's a part that's in even wider demand." Furthermore, the little spinoffs from the satellite in comparison to the propulsive products SpaceDev has been working on.

"The main contribution I'm trying to make in space is to bring the microcomputer way of thinking to an industry that's largely bogged down in the mainframe way of thinking," Benson says. 'This means developing small, efficient satellites and manufacturing the same design over and over again. If you do that, "The reliability goes up, the cost goes down, and the risk goes down." Although no microlaunch vehicles exist for carrying microsatellites into orbit, Benson says microsatellites can get off the surface of the Earth by hitching rides on big launch vehicles. However, like any hitchhiker, they often get dropped off short of their destinations, placed in undesirable orbits.

What microsatellites need, Benson says, are "microkick motors." SpaceDev hasn't attempted to develop this technology from scratch. Instead, three years ago, the company acquired exclusive rights to the intellectual property of a company known as Amroc (American Rocket Company}. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Amroc spent about $25 million developing "hybrid rockets," so called because they use a combination of liquid oxidizers and solid fuel. These "were one of six or eight propulsion systems that were intensively studied by NASA and the Air Force in the mid-'60s, says the University of Arizona's John Lewis. In the end, Lewis says, the American space agency decided to use liquid hydrogen/oxygen rockets to get to the moon because they were more familiar and less challenging. On the other hand, liquid-fuel rockets have a tendency to blow up in spectacular fashion. While their solid-fuel cousins don't blow up, they also cannot be turned off once they've been ignited.

Hybrid rockets, in contrast, don't explode and can be started and stopped at will. "They're not very sexy because they're too simple," Benson contends. "They literally are a big cylinder of rubber or plastic, with a hole down the middle." If you push an oxidizer (such as oxygen or nitrous oxide) into that hollow center and ignite the gas, "The plastic is a hydrocarbon and it burns," Benson explains. "It basically melts. It vaporizes." The burning gas produced in this process can be used to push things into orbit.

Benson acknowledges that the design of hybrid rockets is a bit more complex than he's made it sound. "The temperatures in there are around 5000 degrees. That will melt stainless steel." Nonetheless, he points out that Amroc in the course of its existence built a dozen different sizes of functional hybrid motors, including one that was over 6 feet in diameter and 42 feet long. "It put out a quarter-million pounds of thrust."

Amroc ran out of money before it could win the customers it needed to survive. But after Benson started SpaceDev, he came to think that hybrid rockets might help him bring the microcomputer way of thinking to space. He'd heard that the federal government's National Reconnaissance Office was reevaluating its practice of sending huge, fabulously expensive telescopes into space. "They've lost two in a row. That's five billion dollars-gone!" Benson went to the reconnaissance agency and suggested it should consider creating a network of microsatellites bearing little telescopes whose images could be more combined ("like a local area network!"). Or they could position and maintain all the signals of a network of microsatellites carrying radar antennas. Hybrid motors could position and maintain the satelittes and move them when necessary.

"We said, "Hey, we have propulsion experts [here at SpaceDev] who are familiar with hybrid-rocket motors. The hybrid rockets are clean, They're safe. They're restartable.The only negative is they're not the most efficient things in the world, but who cares? They're cheap, and they do the job." In response, the National Reconnaissance Office in 1999 began awarding the San Diego firm a series of contracts (totaling $1.5 million) to study and further refine the technology.

In May, SpaceDev was finishing up the last of these studies, and Benson invited me to watch a test firing of one of the motors. When I arrived, SpaceDev employees had put up police tape to block off the part of the parking lot that adjoins the area where the motor would be ignited. Inside, I found John Bodle, SpaceDev's director of hybrid propulsion products, a 32-year veteran of General Dynamics' space-systems division in San Diego. Bodle left General Dynamics when the division moved to Colorado, He later worked as a contract employee for Integrated Space Systems, the company that Benson bought. In June 2000, Bodle came to work for SpaceDev full-time.

Bodle explained that he and his teammates would be testing a new design that day. "First off, we want to see it start,'' he said. If the motor performed as he hoped, we would see a nice stable burn for about 20 seconds, during which time the engineers would check check for flow instabilities or unexpected thermodynamic effects. Right now, they're making their final connection calibrations," Bodle told me as we looked through a plate-glass window into the control room, where a couple of guys were sitting in front of computers.

"Is the launching block clear?" a voice over the loudspeaker finally asked. The voice announced a 30-second warning before the firing, then counted "Ten ... nine ... eight ... " A long pause allowed someone in the room to get a laugh by declaring, 'We have T minus 8 and holding:' A minute or two later, the countdown recommenced. This time nothing uninterrupted it. After a heartbeat, a loud rushing noise filled he room. "Oh, that's gonna melt that dust;' cooed Benson, who had joined the observers. "All right! I like that!" The rushing noise went on and on, and Benson ventured, "Looks like we're gonna have a hole in that floor out there. What do you think, John?"

"Don't know," Bodle replied.

"Is that 20 seconds?" Benson added, nervous.

"That's way over 20 seconds," he answered his own question.

"Oh my," someone commented as the motor continued to burn.

"Well, I guess we're going to find out what happens when you go past 20 seconds," Benson said. At least a full minute passed. We stared in dismay at the image of the motor on a small monitor, Scattered murmurs raised the question of whether a fire would break out in the testing bay. But finally the rocket sputtered and died, to be enveloped in the spray of fire extinguishers. "Well," Bodle grunted.

"That was more excitement than I expected."

"It was a nice burn up to that point, though," Benson said.

Several weeks later, Benson explained what had gone wrong. "In the earlier test firings, the rocket motor was mounted horizontally and the flame was shooting out the back end of the test stand. In this case, the motor was firing straight down, and it was two feet closer to the PC sitting beside

it. Apparently, the radiant heat from the flame very quickly overheated the PC, and it suffered one of those blue screens of death, or whatever they call it," The paralyzed computer couldn't shut off the fuel valve.

This was "no major disaster," Benson asserted. "In fact, we had the whole thing back together about ten days later. It was a good learning process." Although the National Reconnaissance Office subsequently rejected for additional funding, Benson says SpaceDev has been working on a major hybrid-rocket proposal for a commercial venture that he expects might bear fruit within the next few weeks.

If approved, it would be "much larger in scope than the little NRO project we were doing." Although Benson didn't disclose the nature of that venture, the potential for hybrid motors that most excites him is using them to power space-tourism lanes. At least 20 different teams from five countries have announced plans to develop such a vehicle. Most of the groups have been inspired by the "X Prize" competition, announced in St. Louis in 1996 and modeled after early aviation prizes that stimulated the creation of new aircraft designs (including the Spirit of St. Louis). Look at what happened after Lindbergh's flight, Benson says. "Boom! Overnight, we had an airline industry. But unfortunately, space didn't start off with competition among entrepreneurs. It started off with a war and the Soviet Union and the United States competing with each other." According to Benson, the people who came up with the X Prize are trying to bring back the theme of entrepreneurial competition. The $10 million prize will go to the creators of the first private vehicle that flies into suborbital space (which NASA defines as 100 km, or 62 miles) twice within a two-week period. The craft also has to be capable of carrying a minimum of three adults who are up to six feet two inches tall and weigh as much as much as 198 pounds. The contest organizers hope these requirements ensure that the competitors "will be designing vehicles which can turn around after the competition and begin to generate revenue."

When Benson first heard about the X Prize, he thought to himself, "'If I were going up into space in one of these things, would I want to be sitting on a liquid bomb? One that can't be turned off? The answer is no." But he says he can well imagine sitting on "a piece of plastic with laughing gas" (the basic components of the hybrid-motor design). So SpaceDev has been visiting various X Prize con-

tenders, telling them how safe and clean and simple hybrid-rocket motors are. "And all of a sudden, a lot of interest has been coming our way."

Benson can hardly control his elation when he thinks about what the first space plane's ride will be like. He can imagine it taking off from a runway and climbing to 20,000 or 30,000 feet. "Then it fires off its rocket motor and shuts off its jet engine and goes straight up to 60 miles. In 60 seconds! Can you imagine that?" he asks. "Think of the climb. Flat out, being pushed down at three times your weight. You're going a mile per second. And then you get to the top and you're slowing down and coasting. You will take off in broad daylight, and 60 seconds after hitting the rocket motor, you're gonna be in the blackest of space. When you look out that window, you'll see the stars that the astronauts see."

Benson describes visiting one of the X Prize competitors, "a world-renowned aerospace designer." While at his factory, Benson says this man told him that when the rocket motor cuts off "and you're coasting at 2000 miles an hour - way beyond the speed of sound, Mach 3, Mach 4- I'm going to turn off everything in the cabin, including the little air circulation fans. I want the loudest sound in the cockpit to be your heart beating." People will be willing to pay $100,000 for an experience like that, Benson believes. "They already are paying." He points to Space Adventures, a Virginia-based firm that claims to have more than $2 million in escrow, including some paid-in-full $98,000 tickets and more than 90 deposits for what will likely be a 45- to 60-minute ride (including about 5 minutes of free fall). "Survey after survey," Benson continues, "has asked people what percentage of their income they would be willing to spend to go to space. Some people say, "Ten time my income.' In other words, if they make $30,000 a year, they'd spend $300,000 to go to space." Dennis Tito spent $20 million. It all makes Benson think that tourism could be the business breakthrough that will finally make space happen. "We're talking about founding a new industry. And SpaceDev is at the leading edge of a new wave of economic activity. It's the next big wave to follow after the Internet."

Tito's flight is contributing to that. "Venture capital companies ing up that are entrepreneurial and space-oriented. "Whereas we couldn't get people to return our phone calls a year and a half ago;' now, he says, potential investors are initiating the calls. This has to be welcome news. In recent months, SpaceDev has been hustling to find additional capital. In February the company announced that a subsidiary would be selling shares in Australia in the hope of raising up to $8 million Auŝtralian ($4.6 million U.S.). But late in April, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission placed a stop order on the prospectus, citing concerns about various aspects of the deal. Then in May, SpaceDev announced disappointing first -quarter financial results (a net loss of $659,000 after interest and other income in 2001, compared to a net loss after interest and other income of $65,000 for the same period in 2000).

When I asked Benson one recent day how long the company could hold out, he replied that SpaceDev was "pretty much" breaking even. "The year before last, we lost $3.7 million.

But last year, when you look at our financials, you'll see that even though we lost a few hundred thousand dollars, it was paper losses." In actuality, last year "we had positive cash flow of almost a million dollars;' Benson contends. He added that SpaceDev's stock price (which shot to an all-time high of almost $2.50 a share in the aftermath of the New Yorker article but sank to 45 cents a share this May) had picked up again. (As of early this week, it was 90 cents.) "So everything is looking up," Benson asserted.

There are times when he can't believe a full four years has slipped away since the UCSD study results inspired him to found the company. He still has his original goal -- to fly a mission to an asteroid and claim it. Benson points out that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, crafted when the United States and Russia feared that someone would put nuclear weapons in space, prohibits any government from claiming a celestial body. Ninety-one countries signed it, including all those that were likely to be spacefaring. A few years later, the UN sought to extend the ban to individuals. But Benson says a "wild-eyed group of space enthusiasts called the 1.5 Society rallied the troops and went to Washington and protested." The ruckus kept Congress from endorsing the UN measure. Now Benson wants to be the first person to test the principle of private property in outer space. "We have property rights on Earth, and much of our wealth in Westerm society is based on property," he says. He wants to set a precedent "for property rights for all future people."

Another thing that hasn't changed is Benson's motivation. Partly that springs from his environmentalism. "We're continuing to destroy what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth," he says. "We're flushing our lite-support system down the toilet.... Planetary warming really is here. The ice caps really are melting. The atmosphere is polluted." He believes we need to have human settlements off the Earth to alleviate population pressures and because we will get whacked by an asteroid someday." But space exploration also can be justified "based on our curiosity and our search for new knowledge." He quotes "the father of all space," the Russian scientist and philosopher Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, who said a century ago "that the Earth is the cradle go humanity, and it's time for us to leave the cradle. I want to have played some small role in changing the course of humanity," Benson says.

If his goals haven't changed, Benson says the means to them have "evolved from a sort of gung ho 'Let's just go do it!' to a more practical 'SpaceDev has got to build an infrastructure. We've got to have products. We've got to have sales....' " Competitors have emerged, but Benson's company has also gained allies. After Wes Huntress left NASA, he became a member of SpaceDev's board this past April, he was joined by Bob Walker, the former chairman of the House Science Committee, who now heads one of the oldest lobbying groups in Washington. General Howell M. Estes III, the former commander in chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Space Command, became a director at the same time.

When I asked Wes Huntress about the delays SpaceDev has encountered, he sounded unperturbed. The former NASA assistant administrator told me he doesn't see delays but rather just "the cost in time required to get a revolution going - because that's what we're talking about" He said he still

thinks Benson is "one of the few who's got a chance at really pulling it off."

"It's a very tough climb," noted Leonard David, a longtime space writer who works for the online space site space.com. "You have to be pretty fast on your feet financially:' But while others have come and gone, David noted that Benson is "still with us. He's out there with new ideas" in a field where "longevity is a key to people ... saluting you."

Don Yeomans, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agreed that "the fact that [Benson is] still viable is fairly remarkable, given that he started with no aerospace expertise whatsoever. He's a remarkable guy." Yeomans told he visited SpaceDev a few years ago, and back then, he would have bet that the company wouldn't last more than nine months. "But damned if they haven't," Yeomans said. He thinks it's a "credit to Benson;'s vision and his tenacity that he's making a go of it," and he added, "I wouldn't bet against him now."

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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.

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."

No one yet knows the precise location of any extinct comet that is easily accessible from Earth. However, scientists have pinpointed the locations of some of the five to ten million near-Earth asteroids that are as large as ten meters across. They're called "carbonaceous chondrites," according to Ostro. "It's this black stuff," he says, a primitive kind of meteorite material composed, in part, of water. Ostro says if you heat a carbonaceous chondrite up to a few hundred degrees centigrade, you liberate the water from the salts and silicates to which it is chemically bound "In the cold of space, the water would condense on anything solid," Ostro explained. Furthermore, as you continue heating the material, it yields other valuable substances. "You get organic chemicals that can be used to make fuel. People have done experiments where they've grown microorganisms and plant-tissue cultures in carbonaceous chondrites. So the stuff has nutrient value; you can think of it as potting Prototype o fhybrid-motor-powered vehicle soil. You have all the resources that you might need in the carbonaceous-chondritic asteroids."

Many of these are within easy reach of the Earth. "Right now," Ostro says, "the most accessible object that we know in the solar system -- with a secure orbit -- is a tiny asteroid probably about the size of a baseball diamond, a spheroidal object named 1998 KY26.1t looks like it's a carbonaceous chondrite." If you take a basketball-size chunk of it and you distill it, ''You can get enough water to keep you alive for a day. Water and oxygen. And it's easy to do,' Ostro says. Think of that basketball-sized chunk as life-support for one person per day, he directs. "KY26 is 100 times the diameter of that ball, so it has a million times the volume, so it's life-support for a million person/days. In other words, it could keep 1000 people alive for 100 days. Or it could keep a couple dozen people alive for their entire lives."

Ostro believes that only when the infrastructure has been created to tap such resources will the chasm between reality and fantasy about space travel be bridged. And he thinks that's destined to happen. Exploration is the inspiration that fuels civilization, he asserts, quoting Bob Dylan: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Besides its ability to support human life, water in space is "white gold" for another reason, Benson told me. It's made of hydrogen and oxygen. ''And do you know what the main shuttle engines burn when the shuttle takes off? Oxygen and hydrogen!" Benson quotes scientist and writer Robert Heinlein, who 50 years ago said, "When we reach Earth orbit, we're halfway to anywhere." What Heinlein meant, Benson says, was that "the amount of energy to get to Earth orbit is the same as the amount of energy to get anywhere else in the Solar system. The trouble is, when we get to Earth orbit, our tank's empty. We're out of gas." Tapping the water content of the near-Earth asteroids would give humanity the gas stations it needs to go where no human has ever gone before.

Benson claims it won't take fancy technology to transform the water into rocket fuel. "We already know how to make solar furnaces on Earth to heat The $10 million prize will go to the creators of the first private vehicle that flies into suborbital space.

Besides its ability to support human life, water in space is "white gold" for another reason, Benson told me. It's made of hydrogen and oxygen. ''And do you know what the main shuttle engines burn when the shuttle takes off? Oxygen and hydrogen!" Benson quotes scientist and writer Robert Heinlein, who 50 years ago said, "When we reach Earth orbit, we're halfway to anywhere." What Heinlein meant, Benson says, was that "the amount of energy to get to Earth orbit is the same as the amount of energy to get anywhere else in the Solar system. The trouble is, when we get to Earth orbit, our tank's empty. We're out of gas." Tapping the water content of the near-Earth asteroids would give humanity the gas stations it needs to go where no human has ever gone before.

Benson claims it won't take fancy technology to transform the water into rocket fuel. "We already know how to make solar furnaces on Earth to heat things up to thousands of degrees. You take the same little thing that you can build in your garage up to space and focus it on the combustion chamber ofa bag of water. You're going to be ejecting superheated steam at the same velocity as the shuttle main engine burns oxygen and hydrogen. That means you have the same propulsive capability in space with water and a solar lens that you do with billion-dollar motors on the shuttle. When you reduce it down to what's called a 'rocket equation,' it's the same thrust."

Excited by such reflections, Benson began attending space conferences, including one in San Diego in November 1996. That's where he met UCSD professor Jim Arnold, a founding director of the California Space Institute (which is headquartered at UCSD). A few days later, Benson showed up at the institute "and wanted to talk about his ideas;' Arnold recalls. "We had speculated earlier that somebody was going to come along sometime who wanted to run a private space mission. And here was this gentleman who came along sooner than we expected. He was -- and is -- an interesting guy." Benson, in turn, says Arnold told him, "This would make our dreams come true. Everyone wants to do missions the right way: small, inexpensive, and cheap. But we butt our heads against the brick wall of NASA:'Arnold volunteered to put together a group to study the feasibility of a private mission to a near-Earth object. That group eventually included 12 graduate and undergraduate students, a couple of professors, and some space-industry veterans, "San Diego is full of retired and fired space engineers since General Dynamics closed down," Arnold elaborates. ''And most of them prefer doing interesting space things to playing golf, so they're willing to come and share." As for the students, Arnold felt that "even if this turned out to be a pipe dream, the students were going to get a lot of useful experience in trying to do a project of this difficulty and originality."

In the eight months that followed, the UCSD team created a preliminary design fora little spacecraft and for the asteroid mission, along with a preliminary estimate of the cost. A few elements of Benson's original vision changed. Instead of flying to 1986 DA, the group decided a better target was an asteroid called Nereus, Benson also modified his business plan to include the idea of renting room on the spacecraft for scientific work. A NASA mission inspired his thinking about this, he says. "NASA in February of 1996 had launched NEAR-the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous." The $225 million tab covered the cost of sending a spacecraft carrying six scientific instruments to a near-Earth asteroid "How much is that science worth? Per instrument?" Benson answers: almost $40 million apiece. "That's the street price for asteroid data; So I said to myself, well, wait a minute. Can the private sector do things more effectively than government! How much cheaper could we do it?" By mounting a private mission to an asteroid, Benson would be creating a kind of "trucking company:' Arnold says, "something that would be very attractive -- because of the lower cost -- to people who wanted to do space missions?" In the late spring of 1997, Benson got a chance to in make that pitch to one. of the most important men in the American space-program, Wes Huntress. Huntress was then in charge of NASA's $3.5billion space science budget, and Benson says he told him, "I'll go raise the money, and I'll bring back science that's cheaper than $40 million per data set.... If NASA gets more science per dollar, and if I make a profit, everybody wins -- the taxpayers, NASA, the scientists, me, and my shareholders.

"I had a lot of folks come through my door who said they had such a deal for me," says Huntress (who left NASA in 1998 to become the director of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, D.C.). Huntress says almost everyone of those visitors told him all they needed was for NASA to give them 30 percent of their start-up costs, "Well, that's not commercial space," Huntress harrumphs. "That's called doing business with the government." In contrast, Benson "came in and said, 'I don't want any money from you now. But I'm in the commercial business, and there's what I want to do.' I was willing to listen on that basis. He was the only one who had the right idea, who want to be in the commercial business and not become just another government contractor feeding off the public trough."

Huntress offered his support, and indeed he later initiated changes in NASA's Discovery Program that made it possible for scientists to seek NASA funds for science experiments that would fly aboard commercial missions. In August 1997, Benson got more good news when the UCSD group concluded it was feasible to send a mission to an asteroid for $25 million.

"That was the basis of me forming SpacelDev" Benson says. Early in September, he held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. at which both UCSD's Jim Arnold and John Lewis (the Mining the Sky author offered enthusiastic testimony. The company would "launch the world's first private spacecraft and land on a near-Earth asteroid for the purpose of collecting scientific data and to stake a claim for commercial mining of its valuable mineral resources," the press release stated, adding, "Benson plans to accomplish his goal by mid-year 2000."

Benson says he and his wife had visited San Diego several times over the years. They loved the area, and when the UCSD group was conducting its feasibility study, Benson became acquainted with a San Diego aerospace company called Integrated Space Systems. It specialized in launch-vehicle and spacecraft design and analysis. In 1998, he bought the company, and that purchase led him to locate his new venture here.

As 1998 got under way, Benson concentrated on lining up payloads for the asteroid mission. He says seven universities wrote letters to NASA declaring their intention to submit proposals, and three of them- Berkeley, Utah State, and Carnegie Mellon - actually did so. "They went through the whole process, describing the science instruments and how they were going to get a cheap ride to a valuable near-Earth object," In the summer of 1998, Benson hired Tony Spear, the project manager for the successful Mars Pathfinder mission, to further evaluate SpaceDev's mission plans. "Tony had left JPL, and he brought about a dozen of his favorite engineers in. They did a real quick analysis of our mission and confirmed that, yes, it was feasible. They said we had done a good job technically of designing it, and it would cost less than $50 million." Benson was still convinced he could do the job for half that amount.

SpaceDev appeared to be headed for the stars. In October 1998, an article in the New Yorker described how the company planned to launch its Near Earth Asteroid Prospector in April 2001 (by then the date had slipped a bit from what Benson had announced at his founding press conference). The expedition would "mark the beginning of an extraterrestrial industrial revolution," the article predicted, buttressing those statements with glowing commentary from close to a dozen leading authorities on space. Huntress, for example, was described as believing that Benson had "the potential to he a historic figure -- the Henry Ford of the Twenty-First Century." Huntress's boss, Dan Goldin, NASA's top administrator, acknowledged that the government space agency was "so afraid of failure we spend billions of dollars protecting ourselves against it." Benson's project was "a hell of a courageous thing to do," the article quoted him.

It was NASA's midlevel bureaucrats who ultimately betrayed him, Benson says. The three detailed proposals "were all shot down." During NASA's "supposedly objective peer-review process," where the bureaucrats go behind closed doors to rate the science and technical competency of projects on a zero-to-ten scale, Benson says he got an.agitated late ... night call from one of the reviewers. "Jim, you won't believe what's going o here:' the man told him."These midlevel NASA bureaucrats are saying things like, 'What is this commercial mission bullshit? We cannot allow this to happen."

In the end, Benson says, "They torpedoed all three of the proposals, even though one of them got straight tens. The excuse on that was, 'Oh well. We can get a cheaper ridefor it on some other mission.' Which everybody knows is baloney." Today Benson vows, "If SpaceDev is successful and we fly cheaper planetary science missions, those bastards are out of jobs. I will see to it! It cost me $2 million of my own money and two years of my life, playing by NASA's rules,only to be screwed by those midlevel bureaucrats? Part of those two years was devoted to pursuing another NASA carrot, one that materialized in 1998. Benson says the Jet Propulsion Laborarorv that year hosted an open competition seeking answers to this fundamental question: If your spacecraft is limited to 200 kilograms (about 450 pounds) and if it's dropped off in a certain type of Earth orbit, can you get to Mars and do one of five different types of missions?

NASA wanted to know this because it was thinking of creating a series of "micromissions" to Mars. The idea was to use excess capacity in the FrenchAriane V launch vehicle, which typically takes big satellites up into geosynchronous Earth orbits. The nose cone of the French rocket has an adapter plate where tiny satellites could be attached. If the main satellite weighs less than what the rocket can lift, "Then why not put a bunch of little babies in there and launch them too?" Benson asks.

Late in 1998,SpaceDev won a $150,000 contract from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to spend six months studying the question. "We put a significant amount of our own money into it and went way beyond the minimum requirements:' Benson says, "We had to come up with a brand-new spacecraft design that weighed 200 kilograms, with these two mounting points side by side." It turned out it's so hard' to get to Mars that 85 percent of the weight of the little spacecraft would have to be reserved for propellant. But SpaceDev nonetheless found that "in most cases, 200 kilograms can find its way to Mars and do something productive."

The SpaceDev team determined that the craft's basic design "would be capable of performing 15 different interplanetary missions in the inner planets -- all the way from the sun to Mercury to Venus to Earth to the inner asteroid belt to Mars and to the beginning of the outer asteroid belt. We jokingly called it our space utility van -- SUV." In 1999, more good news came with the announcement that JPL had decided to pay for two Mars micromissions. "We thought, 'Fantastic!'" Benson recalls. "Finally, we're in the right place at the right time. We have an inside track: we just designed what it is JPL wants to buy." To add to its credibility, SpaceDev announced early in 1999 that it would be teaming up with Boeing to compete for the NASA business.

Then came the bad news. JPL revealed that it would award the highest number of points for a previous successful Mars mission. "That's only Lockheed,"Benson points out. "They're the only one." JPL added that it would give the second-highest number of points for other deep-space missions. "Well, that added two more: Ball Aerospace and Spectrum Astro. That was it. Only those three companies. And everybody else said, 'Why would I waste my time bidding?' Boeing couldn't win. SpaceDev couldn't win."

Ball Aerospace emerged the victor. But after two Mars missions crashed in late 1999, NASA postponed the micromission program. Since then SpaceDev's luck at winning business from the national space agency has taken a turn for the better. In April 2001, the company announced it would be part of a Boeing-led team that had been chosen to study options for a potential 2011 mission to Mars. And back in November 1999, SpaceDev learned it had won a much bigger contract to build what will be NASA's smallest mission ever -- a diminutive science probe known as the CHIPSat.

Benson first got a glimmer that the CHIPSat might come his way just a month or two after the disappointing news about the deck being stacked against him in the competition for the Mars micro missions. Around March 1999, he got a call from an astrophysicist at the University of California Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory named Mark Hurwitz. Hurwitz's professional work has focused on "the stuff between the stars."

Hurwitz explains that a hundred years ago, everyone thought space was empty -- a perfect vacuum. But by the 1920s, astronomers had begun to realize that in fact the vast interstellar regions contain microscopic grains of dust, along with hydrogen and helium gas. Even the densest concentrations of this gas - 1000 or so atoms per cubic centimeter - are much closer to a vacuum than anything we can make on Earth, according to Hurwitz. The least dense regions appear to contain only one atom per 100 cubic centimeters. "Make a little box with your hands," Hurwitz directs, by way of illustration, "and there would be only one atom in there."

In contrast, an empty coffee mug on Earth contains about 1500 quintillion (1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000) gas molecules.

Some of the gases of the "intersteller medium" are extremely hot, having kinetic temperatures of at least a million degrees. Astronomers believe that this gas is heated when stars explode. As the hot, low-density gas expands, it tends to compress pre-existing cooler, denser clouds, triggering the formation of new stars. But the astronomers still don't know many things about the hot gas and the process by which it cools. (For example, they'd like to know at what wavelength the majority of the power radiated by the local hot gas emerges. They'd like to know how it's distributed within 100 parsecs of the sun.) A better understanding of the cooling process - what Hurwitz's study is seeking - should lead to a better understanding of the origins of the stars.

In 1998, Hurwitz got the nod from NASA to create an instrument (the cosmic hot interstellar plasma spectrometer, a.k.a. CHIPS) to collect more information about the interstellar medium. The spectrometer has to do its work in space because "the ultraviolet light we're trying to see doesn't come through the Earth's atmosphere." As first conceived and proposed to NASA, the spectrometer was to have been attached as a scientific hitchhiker to a small communications satellite.

But "that scenario encountered programmatic difficulties," Hurwitz says,"and we ended up - with more or less the same amount of money - needing to suddenly acquire our own dedicated spacecraft." By around June 1999, he had selected SpaceDev from the handful of companies that submitted proposals to build a spacecraft to carry the spectrometer. The San Diego firm was "the most responsive .... They did the best job of showing how they'd meet our requirements," the astrophysicist says.

Today Hurwitz estimates the project will end up costing between $12 and $15 million, "cradle to grave - for every engineer's salary, every scientist's salary from start of mission through end of operations a year after launch. That's everything." It includes "development of the instrument. Development of the spacecraft. It's quite small for a freestanding project like this," Hurwiti contends. Of the total, SpaceDev should end up getting about $5 million.

NASA doesn't dole out those millions to Hurwitz (or SpaceDev) in one big advance. "There's a whole series of gates you have to go through," Hurwitz says. "The money comes in dollops from NASA."

But the project appears to be well underway. "We're on budget and on schedule," Benson says. His engineers have built all the subsystems, and they've wired them together as a "flat sat"; in other words, "They behave electronically as a satellite. So you can send commands to it. It responds. It checks the commands. It actuates things. It stores data." SpaceDev will handle mission control during the launch, and it will direct the satellite's operation for a year afterward. "We have already formed the Internet connections from our electronics lab to our mission-control center to Berkeley to the university in Australia where the other ground station will be." Benson says this September, the company's engineers will start bolting together the satellite pieces in a clean room that's been constructed in the Poway facility. Hurwitz is hoping to add the spectrometer to the package by November; then the whole "observatory will undergo environmental testing. The astrophysicist says "the launch scenario that we're marching toward now" would have the CHIPSat blasting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May or June next year, carried into orbit by a Delta rocket whose primary payload is a big NASA science satellite. Of SpaceDev's performance so far,Hurwitz says, "Many of their individual employees are just outstanding. They're doing better than anyone could reasonably expect." He adds that the San Diego firm's struggles to find other business have created "perhaps predictable tensions." But he believes NASA would like to see SpaceDev succeed with this project. "At some level, NASA is aware that there aren't a lot of marketplace participants from whom you can get a small satellite. And so if SpaceDev delivers this thing on schedule and it works, NASA would generally be pleased as punch." A successful launch "will be a very key milestone for the company," Benson agrees. "Because then you officially join the club that very select few who have actually put a successful satellite in orbit."

At the same time, Ben-son didn't form SpaceDev to put satellites in orbit. Since NASA got out of the communications-satellite business in the early 1990s, that activity has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry, with more than 1700 commercial communications satellites expected to be circling the Earth by 2006. Benson never had the goal of competing with them; his vision was to open up deep space to profit-making operations.

Although CHIPSat has provided bread-and-butter income to support the company while it moves toward the grander vision, the latter still animates Benson. And he says he's been taking aggressive steps to pursue it. At the beginning of 2000, Spacelzev and Boeing announced they were teaming up to explore commercial missions beyond the Earth's orbit. "Boeing then spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars with SpaceDev looking at the possibilities," Benson says. The companies agreed that the asteroid prospector is still a reasonable possibility, "as are possible Mars missions." But Benson says they concluded that the most attractive project to start with was a spacecraft that would make. money by going to the moon.

"We'd already designed the spacecraft [for the Mars micromission]," Benson explains. "If this thing could get all the way to Mars from Earth orbit, carrying all this propellant, it could sure get to the moon and back again." Signals that would arrive at the rate of 10,000 bits per second from Mars could be received at a rate of 10 million bits per second from the moon, cc 'cause you're only a quarter of a million miles away, instead of a quarter of a billion miles. So we would be able to do live-streaming HDTV."

Benson's come to believe this would have "a lot of entertainment value," although he was skeptical at first. In the fall of 1997, he was having dinner in Washington, D.C., with Huntress (the former NASA honcho) and Spear (of Mars Pathfinder fame). "I got there a little bit late, and they both pounced on me," Benson recalls. "They said, 'Jim, do you have any idea how exciting it would be to have a lunar orbiter skimming over the surface of the moon at 4000 miles an hour?

It would be like Star Wars. You could see all the mountains and the craters and everything flying at you!" Benson says he did a double take. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Here are Tony Spear and Wes Huntress waving their hands in the air and talking about Star Wars and entertainment and high-definition TV, and I'm sitting here trying to talk to them about space science?' Honestly, it took me about two years to come around." Another believer in the entertainment value of a commercial lunar mission is John Lewis, the codirector of the Space Engineeing Center at the University of Arizona (and the author of the asteroid-mining books). Lewis thinks the lack of public interest in NASA's space-shuttle launches is understandable. Most of the things that NASA are doing "are just plain boring. Would you go out in the street to watch a Yellow Cab go by? They're too common," Lewis says the Mars Pathfinder mission, in contrast, provided a much better test of the infotainment potential of space. "NASA put the pictures from the Pathfinder and Rover on the Web as soon as they were received, and there were tens of millions of hits on that website. For a couple of weeks, that we weeks, that website was hit more than all of the porn sites in the country combined! There's enormous public interest in space out there."

Not everyone is as sanguine about the entertainment potential of space. Fonner NASA scientist Alan Binder points out that others have tried to exploit that interest, only to give up. Binder cites the example of the Gross brothers, Pasadena-based technology entrepreneurs who, after the success of the Pathfinder/Sojoumer mission, "got the bright idea to fly a Rover to the moon and more than and do it on the net...for pure entertainment purposes." Binder says they eventually "woke up to the fact that is hard to do." That's a truism with which Binder is all too familiar. After he left NASA, he worked without success for six years to obtain private funding for a moon mission; then in 1995 he launched the NASA-sponsored Lunar Prospector, which flew around the moon and collected scientific data for 19 months. Privately designed and managed, that effort has been the most cost-effective lunar and planetary mission ever flown, one that operated for a tenth of what it would have cost NASA. Binder descnbes himself as a friend and supporter of Benson; he sees both of them as kindred spirits working toward a common end. But Binder says, "I have a hard time believing that you can make

$100 million of revenue from an entertainment mission." He thinks you have to have a science-based company "and then you add the entertainment on. I know that you can make $5 million to $10 million from the entertainment side. But that doesn't pay for a mission, as far as I can see." (He says the Lunar Prospector cost $63 million.)

A SpaceDev-operated lunar mission would combine both science and entertainment components. "The first science experiment is being built while we speak." Benson told me one day early in June. He explained that Dr. Michael Drake, "the very creative and aggressive" director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, had obtained more than $100,000 (from the University of Arizona Foundation) to build a simple multiband imaging camera. It's being designed by Peter Smith, the man who created the Mars Pathfinder's cameras. Drake plans to lend this camera to SpaceDev, whose spacecraft will carry it to the moon and sell the data it generates to the highest bidder. "The Canadian space agency might buy it. A natural resources company might buy it." Benson says, adding that SpaceDev in turn hopes to pay Drake's lab a royalty from any data sales.

"This is a fundamental breakthrough in the way space science is done!" Benson exclaims. "We are breaking the paradigm .... Can you imagine scientists being able to do the science they want on their own time frame? With their own instruments built the way they ought to be built? It is totally liberating freedom!" The amount of human knowledge that comes back, he predicts, will gush forth instead of dribbling out.

SpaceDev is now looking for other science payloads. As for the entertainment component, "We're in the marketing phase right now."

But Benson isn't pinning all his hopes on the lunar mission. He believes in having lots of eggs in lots of baskets. In the course of designing the CHIPSat, his engineers found that existing radios for small satellites were too big and expensive for their needs. So they designed what Benson describes as "the world's smallest space-qualified S-band radio." This not only solved the team's immediate problem but also provided a potential new source of revenue. "We have, I believe, 14 sales prospects and 2 quotes outstanding," he told me last week. "We are pleasantly surprised at the huge amount of interest that's being shown us."

SpaceDev's team also has developed a "single-board computer" for the CHIPSat. Benson has done a tech sheet and put it on the website. But we believe when we do, it may receive even more interest because it's a part that's in even wider demand." Furthermore, the little spinoffs from the satellite in comparison to the propulsive products SpaceDev has been working on.

"The main contribution I'm trying to make in space is to bring the microcomputer way of thinking to an industry that's largely bogged down in the mainframe way of thinking," Benson says. 'This means developing small, efficient satellites and manufacturing the same design over and over again. If you do that, "The reliability goes up, the cost goes down, and the risk goes down." Although no microlaunch vehicles exist for carrying microsatellites into orbit, Benson says microsatellites can get off the surface of the Earth by hitching rides on big launch vehicles. However, like any hitchhiker, they often get dropped off short of their destinations, placed in undesirable orbits.

What microsatellites need, Benson says, are "microkick motors." SpaceDev hasn't attempted to develop this technology from scratch. Instead, three years ago, the company acquired exclusive rights to the intellectual property of a company known as Amroc (American Rocket Company}. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Amroc spent about $25 million developing "hybrid rockets," so called because they use a combination of liquid oxidizers and solid fuel. These "were one of six or eight propulsion systems that were intensively studied by NASA and the Air Force in the mid-'60s, says the University of Arizona's John Lewis. In the end, Lewis says, the American space agency decided to use liquid hydrogen/oxygen rockets to get to the moon because they were more familiar and less challenging. On the other hand, liquid-fuel rockets have a tendency to blow up in spectacular fashion. While their solid-fuel cousins don't blow up, they also cannot be turned off once they've been ignited.

Hybrid rockets, in contrast, don't explode and can be started and stopped at will. "They're not very sexy because they're too simple," Benson contends. "They literally are a big cylinder of rubber or plastic, with a hole down the middle." If you push an oxidizer (such as oxygen or nitrous oxide) into that hollow center and ignite the gas, "The plastic is a hydrocarbon and it burns," Benson explains. "It basically melts. It vaporizes." The burning gas produced in this process can be used to push things into orbit.

Benson acknowledges that the design of hybrid rockets is a bit more complex than he's made it sound. "The temperatures in there are around 5000 degrees. That will melt stainless steel." Nonetheless, he points out that Amroc in the course of its existence built a dozen different sizes of functional hybrid motors, including one that was over 6 feet in diameter and 42 feet long. "It put out a quarter-million pounds of thrust."

Amroc ran out of money before it could win the customers it needed to survive. But after Benson started SpaceDev, he came to think that hybrid rockets might help him bring the microcomputer way of thinking to space. He'd heard that the federal government's National Reconnaissance Office was reevaluating its practice of sending huge, fabulously expensive telescopes into space. "They've lost two in a row. That's five billion dollars-gone!" Benson went to the reconnaissance agency and suggested it should consider creating a network of microsatellites bearing little telescopes whose images could be more combined ("like a local area network!"). Or they could position and maintain all the signals of a network of microsatellites carrying radar antennas. Hybrid motors could position and maintain the satelittes and move them when necessary.

"We said, "Hey, we have propulsion experts [here at SpaceDev] who are familiar with hybrid-rocket motors. The hybrid rockets are clean, They're safe. They're restartable.The only negative is they're not the most efficient things in the world, but who cares? They're cheap, and they do the job." In response, the National Reconnaissance Office in 1999 began awarding the San Diego firm a series of contracts (totaling $1.5 million) to study and further refine the technology.

In May, SpaceDev was finishing up the last of these studies, and Benson invited me to watch a test firing of one of the motors. When I arrived, SpaceDev employees had put up police tape to block off the part of the parking lot that adjoins the area where the motor would be ignited. Inside, I found John Bodle, SpaceDev's director of hybrid propulsion products, a 32-year veteran of General Dynamics' space-systems division in San Diego. Bodle left General Dynamics when the division moved to Colorado, He later worked as a contract employee for Integrated Space Systems, the company that Benson bought. In June 2000, Bodle came to work for SpaceDev full-time.

Bodle explained that he and his teammates would be testing a new design that day. "First off, we want to see it start,'' he said. If the motor performed as he hoped, we would see a nice stable burn for about 20 seconds, during which time the engineers would check check for flow instabilities or unexpected thermodynamic effects. Right now, they're making their final connection calibrations," Bodle told me as we looked through a plate-glass window into the control room, where a couple of guys were sitting in front of computers.

"Is the launching block clear?" a voice over the loudspeaker finally asked. The voice announced a 30-second warning before the firing, then counted "Ten ... nine ... eight ... " A long pause allowed someone in the room to get a laugh by declaring, 'We have T minus 8 and holding:' A minute or two later, the countdown recommenced. This time nothing uninterrupted it. After a heartbeat, a loud rushing noise filled he room. "Oh, that's gonna melt that dust;' cooed Benson, who had joined the observers. "All right! I like that!" The rushing noise went on and on, and Benson ventured, "Looks like we're gonna have a hole in that floor out there. What do you think, John?"

"Don't know," Bodle replied.

"Is that 20 seconds?" Benson added, nervous.

"That's way over 20 seconds," he answered his own question.

"Oh my," someone commented as the motor continued to burn.

"Well, I guess we're going to find out what happens when you go past 20 seconds," Benson said. At least a full minute passed. We stared in dismay at the image of the motor on a small monitor, Scattered murmurs raised the question of whether a fire would break out in the testing bay. But finally the rocket sputtered and died, to be enveloped in the spray of fire extinguishers. "Well," Bodle grunted.

"That was more excitement than I expected."

"It was a nice burn up to that point, though," Benson said.

Several weeks later, Benson explained what had gone wrong. "In the earlier test firings, the rocket motor was mounted horizontally and the flame was shooting out the back end of the test stand. In this case, the motor was firing straight down, and it was two feet closer to the PC sitting beside

it. Apparently, the radiant heat from the flame very quickly overheated the PC, and it suffered one of those blue screens of death, or whatever they call it," The paralyzed computer couldn't shut off the fuel valve.

This was "no major disaster," Benson asserted. "In fact, we had the whole thing back together about ten days later. It was a good learning process." Although the National Reconnaissance Office subsequently rejected for additional funding, Benson says SpaceDev has been working on a major hybrid-rocket proposal for a commercial venture that he expects might bear fruit within the next few weeks.

If approved, it would be "much larger in scope than the little NRO project we were doing." Although Benson didn't disclose the nature of that venture, the potential for hybrid motors that most excites him is using them to power space-tourism lanes. At least 20 different teams from five countries have announced plans to develop such a vehicle. Most of the groups have been inspired by the "X Prize" competition, announced in St. Louis in 1996 and modeled after early aviation prizes that stimulated the creation of new aircraft designs (including the Spirit of St. Louis). Look at what happened after Lindbergh's flight, Benson says. "Boom! Overnight, we had an airline industry. But unfortunately, space didn't start off with competition among entrepreneurs. It started off with a war and the Soviet Union and the United States competing with each other." According to Benson, the people who came up with the X Prize are trying to bring back the theme of entrepreneurial competition. The $10 million prize will go to the creators of the first private vehicle that flies into suborbital space (which NASA defines as 100 km, or 62 miles) twice within a two-week period. The craft also has to be capable of carrying a minimum of three adults who are up to six feet two inches tall and weigh as much as much as 198 pounds. The contest organizers hope these requirements ensure that the competitors "will be designing vehicles which can turn around after the competition and begin to generate revenue."

When Benson first heard about the X Prize, he thought to himself, "'If I were going up into space in one of these things, would I want to be sitting on a liquid bomb? One that can't be turned off? The answer is no." But he says he can well imagine sitting on "a piece of plastic with laughing gas" (the basic components of the hybrid-motor design). So SpaceDev has been visiting various X Prize con-

tenders, telling them how safe and clean and simple hybrid-rocket motors are. "And all of a sudden, a lot of interest has been coming our way."

Benson can hardly control his elation when he thinks about what the first space plane's ride will be like. He can imagine it taking off from a runway and climbing to 20,000 or 30,000 feet. "Then it fires off its rocket motor and shuts off its jet engine and goes straight up to 60 miles. In 60 seconds! Can you imagine that?" he asks. "Think of the climb. Flat out, being pushed down at three times your weight. You're going a mile per second. And then you get to the top and you're slowing down and coasting. You will take off in broad daylight, and 60 seconds after hitting the rocket motor, you're gonna be in the blackest of space. When you look out that window, you'll see the stars that the astronauts see."

Benson describes visiting one of the X Prize competitors, "a world-renowned aerospace designer." While at his factory, Benson says this man told him that when the rocket motor cuts off "and you're coasting at 2000 miles an hour - way beyond the speed of sound, Mach 3, Mach 4- I'm going to turn off everything in the cabin, including the little air circulation fans. I want the loudest sound in the cockpit to be your heart beating." People will be willing to pay $100,000 for an experience like that, Benson believes. "They already are paying." He points to Space Adventures, a Virginia-based firm that claims to have more than $2 million in escrow, including some paid-in-full $98,000 tickets and more than 90 deposits for what will likely be a 45- to 60-minute ride (including about 5 minutes of free fall). "Survey after survey," Benson continues, "has asked people what percentage of their income they would be willing to spend to go to space. Some people say, "Ten time my income.' In other words, if they make $30,000 a year, they'd spend $300,000 to go to space." Dennis Tito spent $20 million. It all makes Benson think that tourism could be the business breakthrough that will finally make space happen. "We're talking about founding a new industry. And SpaceDev is at the leading edge of a new wave of economic activity. It's the next big wave to follow after the Internet."

Tito's flight is contributing to that. "Venture capital companies ing up that are entrepreneurial and space-oriented. "Whereas we couldn't get people to return our phone calls a year and a half ago;' now, he says, potential investors are initiating the calls. This has to be welcome news. In recent months, SpaceDev has been hustling to find additional capital. In February the company announced that a subsidiary would be selling shares in Australia in the hope of raising up to $8 million Auŝtralian ($4.6 million U.S.). But late in April, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission placed a stop order on the prospectus, citing concerns about various aspects of the deal. Then in May, SpaceDev announced disappointing first -quarter financial results (a net loss of $659,000 after interest and other income in 2001, compared to a net loss after interest and other income of $65,000 for the same period in 2000).

When I asked Benson one recent day how long the company could hold out, he replied that SpaceDev was "pretty much" breaking even. "The year before last, we lost $3.7 million.

But last year, when you look at our financials, you'll see that even though we lost a few hundred thousand dollars, it was paper losses." In actuality, last year "we had positive cash flow of almost a million dollars;' Benson contends. He added that SpaceDev's stock price (which shot to an all-time high of almost $2.50 a share in the aftermath of the New Yorker article but sank to 45 cents a share this May) had picked up again. (As of early this week, it was 90 cents.) "So everything is looking up," Benson asserted.

There are times when he can't believe a full four years has slipped away since the UCSD study results inspired him to found the company. He still has his original goal -- to fly a mission to an asteroid and claim it. Benson points out that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, crafted when the United States and Russia feared that someone would put nuclear weapons in space, prohibits any government from claiming a celestial body. Ninety-one countries signed it, including all those that were likely to be spacefaring. A few years later, the UN sought to extend the ban to individuals. But Benson says a "wild-eyed group of space enthusiasts called the 1.5 Society rallied the troops and went to Washington and protested." The ruckus kept Congress from endorsing the UN measure. Now Benson wants to be the first person to test the principle of private property in outer space. "We have property rights on Earth, and much of our wealth in Westerm society is based on property," he says. He wants to set a precedent "for property rights for all future people."

Another thing that hasn't changed is Benson's motivation. Partly that springs from his environmentalism. "We're continuing to destroy what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth," he says. "We're flushing our lite-support system down the toilet.... Planetary warming really is here. The ice caps really are melting. The atmosphere is polluted." He believes we need to have human settlements off the Earth to alleviate population pressures and because we will get whacked by an asteroid someday." But space exploration also can be justified "based on our curiosity and our search for new knowledge." He quotes "the father of all space," the Russian scientist and philosopher Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, who said a century ago "that the Earth is the cradle go humanity, and it's time for us to leave the cradle. I want to have played some small role in changing the course of humanity," Benson says.

If his goals haven't changed, Benson says the means to them have "evolved from a sort of gung ho 'Let's just go do it!' to a more practical 'SpaceDev has got to build an infrastructure. We've got to have products. We've got to have sales....' " Competitors have emerged, but Benson's company has also gained allies. After Wes Huntress left NASA, he became a member of SpaceDev's board this past April, he was joined by Bob Walker, the former chairman of the House Science Committee, who now heads one of the oldest lobbying groups in Washington. General Howell M. Estes III, the former commander in chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Space Command, became a director at the same time.

When I asked Wes Huntress about the delays SpaceDev has encountered, he sounded unperturbed. The former NASA assistant administrator told me he doesn't see delays but rather just "the cost in time required to get a revolution going - because that's what we're talking about" He said he still

thinks Benson is "one of the few who's got a chance at really pulling it off."

"It's a very tough climb," noted Leonard David, a longtime space writer who works for the online space site space.com. "You have to be pretty fast on your feet financially:' But while others have come and gone, David noted that Benson is "still with us. He's out there with new ideas" in a field where "longevity is a key to people ... saluting you."

Don Yeomans, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agreed that "the fact that [Benson is] still viable is fairly remarkable, given that he started with no aerospace expertise whatsoever. He's a remarkable guy." Yeomans told he visited SpaceDev a few years ago, and back then, he would have bet that the company wouldn't last more than nine months. "But damned if they haven't," Yeomans said. He thinks it's a "credit to Benson;'s vision and his tenacity that he's making a go of it," and he added, "I wouldn't bet against him now."

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