Will space exploration forever remain the sole domain of the handful of government space agencies? For decades we’ve taken for granted that the moon, Mars—everything outside the Earth—belongs to nobody and that only big government programs are capable of tackling the colossal challenges posed by launching expensive space probes.
Not for long.
SpaceDev, the California-based company started just a few years ago by entrepreneur Jim Benson, intends to bust that country club wide open. Taking advantage of what is now relatively commonplace technology, and by building strategic partnerships, SpaceDev intends to explore space for profit. In the next few years they plan to launch at least two space probes–one of these will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid (at which time SpaceDev will claim the giant hunk of rock as private property)! Pretty soon, we can expect a number of other companies to follow SpaceDev’s lead, possibly triggering a new commercial space race.
We talked to Jim Benson about his vision of the future and his ambitious plans for SpaceDev.
Q: What was your inspiration in founding SpaceDev? How long had you been toying with the idea before you finally started the company?
Jim Benson: I have loved science, technology and astronomy since I was a young child. At ten I read Asimov’s I, Robot and at about twelve I first saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope, with my own eyes—it was a breathtaking sight. After I made my fortune in microcomputer software in 1995 (selling a company I founded in 1984), I spent all of 1996 deciding what challenge I would take on, and decided on space; and because I am a businessman, space business.
Q: What has been the reaction of NASA (or any other government space agencies worldwide) toward you? Are they interested in active cooperation?
JB: In January of 1997, Dr. Jim Arnold and Dr. Mike Wiskerchen of the University of California at San Diego agreed to start an undergraduate project to examine the feasibility of a small, inexpensive commercial mission similar to NASA’s $250 million NEAR mission. We concluded after eight months of study that such a mission was possible for less than $50 million. In the meantime, I had met NASA Headquarters Chief of Staff Mike Mott, now Boeing V.P. for New Business, Dr. Wes Huntress, head of the NASA Office of Space Science and now a SpaceDev Board member, and had briefed NASA Administrator Dan Goldin on our plans for a non-subsidized commercial deep space science mission (NEAP: Near Earth Asteroid Prospector). Because of this networking and solid feasibility, helped by consulting done for us by JPL Mars Pathfinder Program Manager Tony Spear, we had a good story to tell, and because we were not looking for government handouts, NASA HQ people were very supportive, including Alan Ladwig, Associate Administrator of the Office of Policy and Plans, now at Space.com. So, SpaceDev has enjoyed good access and credibility from the very beginning.
Q: How’d you pick your team of managers and chief engineers?
JB: When Wall Street says that management is the most important ingredient for success, they are not kidding. I had access because I have a successful track record of starting, building and selling my own companies, and because I was willing to invest a significant percentage of my own net worth in SpaceDev. When I look for people to hire, I ask myself “Why hire less than the best?” You can see this in action by visiting our web site (www.spacedev.com) and checking out our top management team, made up of Stan Dubyn, Jan King, and Charlie Lloyd.
Q: How many people are currently employed by SpaceDev?
JB: SpaceDev currently employs about 25 full- and part- time people, mostly experienced space engineers, and we have access to dozens more in the San Diego area, as the need arises. Our engineers are primarily spacecraft and rocket engineers and come to SpaceDev from Hughes, TRW, JPL, Goddard, universities and competitors, because they share the SpaceDev philosophy of doing things in creative, innovative, small, commercial and inexpensive ways, with a minimum of bureaucracy.
Q: What, in a nutshell, are the current official positions of the United States and the United Nations with respect to private property ownership in space? Do you see those positions as having any validity?
JB: I don’t believe they have an official position, and if they did, I wouldn’t care because I don’t believe they have legal standing in space: they are earth-based. No ratified space treaty even discusses the issue of private property rights in space, so as far as I am concerned, the issue is open. I think it would be fun and a great benefit to humanity to be the first non-government mission to another small planetary body, like a lifeless but potentially valuable asteroid, which could be claimed in order to start a precedence for property rights in space. Space is almost infinite, and there is enough for everyone.
Q: What’s the latest on NEAP? What’s the present launch date?
JB: We are looking at changing targets and making the launch date later. Because we are not seeking government subsidies, gathering many millions of dollars is time-consuming and difficult. NEAP remains a high priority with SpaceDev and we are working on an increasing number of commercial possibilities to get it flown. It is unlikely that it will launch before mid-2002. At the same time, we won a competitive contract to build the smallest and least expensive earth-orbiting science spacecraft NASA has selected. We are doing the work for UC Berkeley under a commercial fixed price contract. For less than $5 million, SpaceDev is designing the mission, designing, building, testing, integrating the satellite, and we will be operating it for a year in our own Mission Control Center. We are very excited about this project and believe it lends additional credibility to SpaceDev, because I am not aware of any entrepreneurial space company that is actually building anything of substance at this time, other than Beal Aerospace.
Q: Once NEAP rendezvous with the asteroid, SpaceDev plans to claim private ownership of it. How will you accomplish this? Are you concerned that every national government on the planet might try to haul you into court, harassing you for years, even decades? Your lawyers must love you!
JB: Yes, I think it would be very interesting to claim an asteroid, and that could cause a big public debate, which I believe is necessary for democracy to work: an informed and participating public. I don’t believe it is possible to be “hauled into court” over claiming property rights on a lifeless little rock out in space that was visited by a non-subsidized, private, unmanned, research and resource assessment spacecraft. What body has standing in space? None. Governments are prohibited from claiming sovereignty in space, therefore I believe it will be the space pioneers who set the precedents, similar to the California Gold Rush in which the miners set up their own claim procedures which the government later used as the basis for law, once the government caught up with the pioneers. Space might be a replay of that scenario, the public being out in front of the government, pioneering a new frontier, just like the traders did in North America, except there is no native life in space to interfere with.
Q: Once you’ve established your ownership of the asteroid, what then? What will you actually do with it?
JB: Nothing. Just set a precedent.
Q: Let’s take this idea a little further. Suppose a private consortium of aerospace companies funded a manned mission to Mars. Could they claim the whole planet? Or just the portion they could reasonably explore or develop? Would such a scenario be any different if it were, say, the Moon?
JB: I believe privately financed exploration and development of space resources must be rewarded. My favorite saying is: “If we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay.” My own personal motto is: “You can’t get ahead by holding back.” As for planets, I believe the purely commercial companies that fly their own unsubsidized missions to another planet should be rewarded with some formula based on the square miles of the planet’s surface. For example, maybe they should get a plot of land, surrounding their landing site, equal to one-ten-thousandth of the total planet’s surface area. That would mean the first ten thousand missions to land in different locations would end up owning the planet. There are many possibilities, and the people of the world need to have a debate on the pros and cons of planet ownership.
Q: It looks like the lion’s share of your potential income will be from practical scientific research. Will any portion of your revenue come from purely consumer-marketing or entertainment sources (selling ad space on a probe to Coca-Cola, for example; or organizing a pay-per-view of a live televised landing of a probe on Mars)?
JB: It is possible that entertainment and media sales may finance the first few private missions beyond earth orbit. We are talking to three very large organizations about just such a possibility. Please see our recent news releases at the SpaceDev web site. I believe commercial science missions are very important for not only the scientists because at lower mission costs, more missions will be performed more, scientists will get to do more science, and ultimately the public will benefit from vastly more human knowledge, and sooner, all because of less expensive commercial deep space science missions. But NASA and its foreign counterparts need to have a corporate culture shift of great magnitude before they will willingly participate in such wonderful innovations and economies of scale.
Q: Any new or upcoming projects you can tell us about? Where do you see SpaceDev in, say, ten years?
JB: As a public company we cannot make such projections. I can say that in the long term, I am very hopeful that we will be recognized as instrumental in creating an atmosphere in which commercial space missions can be talked about seriously, and that SpaceDev will be recognized for the major changes in perception and credibility that have already gone to the benefit of other space entrepreneurs who copy SpaceDev as a model for their own efforts. We don’t always get the credit, but I do have the personal satisfaction of knowing what I have already triggered in only three years, and I see it growing and multiplying over the next few decades. Remember, space is a place, not a government program!
[Originally posted in May 2000 at SciFiDimensions.com. In December 2008, SpaceDev was acquired by Sierra Nevada Corporation.]