Starring role

5 min read

Jim Benson’s plans for a private low-orbit craft may seem ambitious, but his firm SpaceDev is already beating bigger players to US aerospace contracts. Niall Firth reports.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq putting a combined financial drain on the US economy, NASA project chiefs have had to tighten their belts a little more than they are used to.

Faced with budget cuts, NASA and other US government agencies may have to turn to the private sector to drag the industry over the final few yards towards commercial space flight.

Which will suit one man in particular. Jim Benson, chief executive and founder of private space technology company SpaceDev, has just agreed a contract to launch micro-satellites for the US Air Force Research Laboratory, promising to make him an even wealthier man than he is already.

Benson, a computer entrepreneur who made his name — and a few million dollars — as founder of Compusearch in the mid-1980s, set up SpaceDev in 1996 when he decided that the space industry needed a Benson-style makeover.

Nobody could accuse him of lacking self-belief, and his ambitions — which extend to privately-funded space settlements — are on the face of it far-fetched. However, unlike other space visionaries, Benson has a track record in the fledgling commercial space sector.

The future of private enterprise in space travel was blown wide open last October when SpaceShipOne became the first private spacecraft to reach low orbit, winning the Ansari X Prize and netting a cool $10m (£5.5m).

SpaceDev supplied the craft’s hybrid thrusters, which were preferred to traditional thrusters because they were non-explosive, and used a type of rubber as solid fuel and nitrous oxide as the gaseous oxidiser.

SpaceShipOne’s historic flight established SpaceDev as a leading light in the nascent commercial space industry. Since then it has been pushing the boundaries of what is possible in private space flight.

SpaceDev outbid some industry bighitters to win the contract with the US Air Force. Benson saw this as not only a   massive coup for smaller entrepreneurial companies, but also as a sign of things to come for the space industry.

He characterises himself as the small, independent David up against established industry Goliaths such as Boeing, and believes a new culture is forming in the space community that says big isn’t necessarily better.

‘There is one big reason why we can compete with the big boys such as Boeing; we can develop cutting-edge technology for a tenth of the cost,’ claimed Benson.

‘We are now being taken very seriously indeed.’

The markets seem to agree. SpaceDev is the world’s first publicly traded space exploration company and after SpaceShipOne’s momentous flight its stock price shot up, valuing it at around $35m. The company has just announced first-quarter profits of $110,000.

SpaceDev’s 2,320 sq m plant in Poway, California, includes a small spacecraft assembly and test facility, an avionics development lab, machine shop, mechanical assembly lab and mission operations centre.

This compact set-up enables it to keep all of its operations in one place — another way of keeping costs to a minimum. Benson sees the space industry as a giant, sluggish, bureaucratic monster and he hopes to bring about the kind of technological revolution that has swept through the microcomputer industry since the 1980s.

He views the current model for space exploration, where big companies charge for the cost of any project plus a percentage fixed fee, as completely outdated and rooted in a ‘risk-averse corporate culture’.

Using knowledge Benson has gleaned from his time in the computer industry, SpaceDev has introduced a low-cost, innovative technical strategy, marketing products that can be bought off-the-shelf, rather than projectspecific technology.

SpaceDev’s involvement in space flight and satellites began in 1999 with the development of its CHIPsat (Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer satellite), which was launched in 2003 and in January this year celebrated its second anniversary in orbit.

The satellite used revolutionary technology and flew in the face of accepted thinking at the time, which dictated that a satellite could not be launched for less than $40m. CHIPsat cost a paltry $7m to launch and was the first satellite to only use the internet to communicate.

SpaceDev’s $1.5m contract with the US Air Force is for the construction of a small launch vehicle called SpaceDev Streaker. Using SpaceDev’s proprietary hybrid rocket propulsion system, it will launch unmanned satellites into orbit for a fraction of the price bigger companies would charge.

The three-stage rocket will be able to be launched with 24 hours’ notice from either a C-17A cargo plane or, in the case of a larger version, from a mobile ground launcher. It will have the capacity to put a 450kg payload into orbit.

SpaceDev is also working on a rocket propulsion device scaled down to microsatellite size, which Benson plans to design as being capable of restarting many times over.

‘Right now our rocket motors have individual igniters — typically four or six — meaning that there are only as many starts as there are igniters. Being able to turn igniters off and on will be hugely useful when you’re looking at rendezvous and docking,’ Benson said.

Most recently, the company announced plans for a six-person spacecraft suitable for low-orbit and orbital flight, know as ‘Dream Chaser’.

The design study was conducted as part of an agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Centre, and the Dream Chaser would be powered by scaled-up versions of the same hybrid rocket engines as SpaceShipOne.

Benson intends Dream Chaser to be a re-usable orbital spacecraft that could dock with a commercial space station. He believes that if NASA does not take up the vehicle it could just as easily be used by fellow entrepreneurs such as the UK’s Richard Branson. 

‘It’s right up his [Branson’s] alley. It’s very clear to me that he is focused on orbital capability, just like we are,’ said Benson. ‘Before SpaceShipOne we were focused on low-orbital flight, but when we were certain that NASA was going to solicit for non-traditional contractors for an orbital spacecraft to replace the shuttle we moved onto focusing on orbital capability.’

Benson runs SpaceDev with one eye firmly on an ambitious ‘road map’ and believes that this gives it a clarity of purpose other space contractors lack.

‘We are one of the few companies that says: “this what our long term goals are”, and people can see if we’re actually doing what we said we’d do,’ he said.

‘We don’t take on a project that does not fit in with our idea of where space technology should be going — that doesn’t follow the road map.’ The road map certainly charts some ambitious territory. It takes in manned lunar landings by around 2012 and tourist and commercial space stations by 2015.

‘This is the beginning of the second space-age,’ Benson said. ‘If Richard Branson is able to execute the Virgin Galactic [space tourism] programme it will be a history-changing event.

‘The first space-age was characterised by cold war competition. That has now been replaced by an age in which the commercial sector will lead; it started last year with SpaceShipOne.’

According to Benson, NASA’s dire need for a viable, cheaper alternative to the space shuttle is pushing the industry towards commercial and private enterprise. But his plans extend beyond even manned commercial space flights. His long-term goal is to create sustainable human settlements in orbit and beyond, by finding and using natural resources in space. This year he is setting up the Space Development Institute as a non-profitmaking centre for the study of near-Earth objects.

‘There are around five million deposits of water on extinct comets within the solar system, which we can use as rocket fuel,’ Benson said. ‘This will be the white gold of the future. I foresee fully-sustained human settlements on these places within our lifetime.’