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How one company is making space pay

SpaceDev's Jim Benson talks about his company's plans to bring private enterprise to the final frontier — and take advantage of the "killer apps" in outer space.
SpaceDev founder Jim Benson writes an inscription on a rocket motor for the SpaceShipOne craft in 2004. Benson's company helped develop the motors for the world's first manned, privately funded, reusable spaceship.
SpaceDev founder Jim Benson writes an inscription on a rocket motor for the SpaceShipOne craft in 2004. Benson's company helped develop the motors for the world's first manned, privately funded, reusable spaceship.SpaceDev

Jim Benson has a plan for colonizing space.

To be sure, building self-sustaining settlements on other planets isn't the first item on the to-do list he sketched out five years ago, as the founder of one of the space industry's scrappiest publicly traded companies. In fact, SpaceDev's 60-year-old chairman and chief executive officer stands to be in his 70s or 80s by the time he gets to that part of his technology roadmap.

But he does have a plan — and so far, the plan is right on schedule, thanks to projects ranging from low-cost, high-performance microsatellites to the historic SpaceShipOne suborbital flights and even more ambitious orbital dreams.

Among the highlights so far for the Poway, Calif.-based company:

  • SpaceDev started out targeting an asteroid for a landing mission called NEAP, but found more success in developing microsatellites for scientific missions such as ChipSat as well as for the Pentagon's missile defense program.
  • The company helped develop the innovative hybrid rocket engine for SpaceShipOne, which runs on nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") and a rubber-based compound. Although it's not yet clear whether SpaceDev will play the same role for the follow-on SpaceShipTwo project, the company hopes to use a similar propulsion system for its own orbital rocket ship, dubbed Dream Chaser.
  • SpaceDev is also developing a low-cost expendable launch vehicle called the Streaker, and is participating in studies for potential missions to the moon's south pole and the L-1 gravitational balance point between Earth and the moon.

For Benson, the highlights are showing up on the bottom line as well: "We've had 10 consecutive quarters of increasing revenue ... two quarters in a row now of bottom-line profits, we are virtually debt-free, we've got over $6 million cash in the bank, and we have over $40 million in contracts," he told during an interview last week.

Soften Lines ( Eyes Etc.) Smooth Complexion Please ref Name on file
Soften Lines ( Eyes Etc.) Smooth Complexion Please ref Name on file

A decade ago, Benson didn't expect to be the chairman and chief executive officer of a space company. In 1995, he sold two successful software companies and became a retired millionaire. But he quickly found retirement to be just plain boring. After doing some market research, he made his move into the rocket industry by founding SpaceDev in 1996.

The first years weren't easy: His overly glowing comments got him into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and he has had to tone down his act since then. Nowadays, he's more reserved about discussing his future plans and prospects, although he keeps hinting that big projects are just around the corner.

"Month by month, keep an eye on us," he said.

Whatever lies ahead, Benson certainly doesn't sound bored, and he just might still be around in 2020 to finish up that to-do list. "This keeps me so energized, I can hardly wait to get up the next morning. ... I'm just having the time of my life," he said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Benson shared his plans for plug-and-play satellites, going to the moon, human spaceflight, filling stations for spaceships and more:

MSNBC: How do you make money in this new environment for space activities?

Jim Benson: We believe pretty strongly that if we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay. That's the bottom line. We've got to find ways of making space happen for all of humanity, other than through government programs, because they're subject to limited budgets and limited political attention span. The programs start and stop, and they change with every political whim.

So the bottom line is the bottom line. We've got to find profitable ways of developing and using space technology.

I was talking to a founder of a very visible space advocacy group a couple of days ago, and I sent him SpaceDev's space technology roadmap for the development of a private-sector space program. I have presented this thing during most speeches that I've given at a wide variety of conferences around the world, and I'm constantly surprised at how few people have actually seen the SpaceDev roadmap.

The important thing about it is that it shows a 20-year program to develop a private-sector space program, starting from nothing and ending up with self-sustaining human settlements out beyond 2015-2020. ... Surprisingly enough, we're on schedule. We just make minor tweaks to the technologies and fill in the boxes as we go.

When I first started SpaceDev, I thought I could just throw some money at it, do a mission and charge forward to my goals out there on the horizon. It turned out that it didn’t work out that way. I had to go back and rethink the whole direction of SpaceDev, and I came up with the idea that we need to build a foundation of space technology building blocks. It's that foundation growing level by level that's going to give us the solidity and the strength to keep moving ahead.

So way down in the lower left-hand corner, there are Internet-based microsats and hybrid propulsion modules leading into manned propulsion systems as we did for SpaceShipOne. Up above that is unmanned missions and robotic things: We're to the point now where we've gone from a simple little suitcase-sized ChipSat, which was the most advanced satellite of its kind in the country in 2003, to the present, where we're developing small satellites about twice the size that have three times the capability but at the same price.

These are also meant for low Earth orbit, but we just announced a contract with Andrews Space for a NASA mission called SmallTug: We will build a spacecraft bus, and we're heading out to the moon. It will use ion propulsion to spiral out away from Earth, and wind up in a little holding orbit at the lunar L-1 point. That point, and the other Lagrange points, have been described as steppingstones to other destinations. The concept is like "gravity tunnels" or subway tunnels, where you get to a node, then switch tracks and head in a different direction. From the lunar L-1 point, you can go into orbit around the moon, you can go to a lunar L-2 point, you can even head to Mars.

MSNBC: Or a near-Earth asteroid for a mining operation. ... This enlarges upon the idea of an "interplanetary superhighway."

Benson: Yes. And it's really Martin Lo — one of the originators of the idea, I think of him as a navigator — who developed this idea of the interplanetary superhighway, and we're going to hop onto it and ride out to one of the interchanges at L-1. As you look at our technology development roadmap, you'll see that all these things were already plotted out.

The boxes are very generic: unmanned planetary exploration, or unmanned landing on an asteroid, resource extraction, resource utilization, propellant transfer, water propulsion systems. So there are a lot of building blocks in there that all added together result in a human and robotic strategy for getting beyond Earth orbit and eventually arriving at self-sustaining human settlements.

We started off with a bang, and we've actually gotten quieter as we've accomplished more. That's to my chagrin, because I like the publicity.

MSNBC: One of the things that people have talked about, in terms of the space industry, is the search for a "killer app" that would bring the bottom line home to investors and potential customers. At one point, people expected that the satellite telecom revolution would be the killer app, but that fizzled.

Now people are talking about space tourism as the killer app. But if you're talking about an incremental approach to private space, I would assume you don't take that "killer app" view of how things will develop in the future.

Benson: Well, actually, to some extent I do. If you go back 25 years to the beginning of the microcomputer revolution, the microcomputers came first, and the killer apps came second. There were really three of them: It was spreadsheets, VisiCalc for example; word processing, WordStar for example, and databases, dBase2 for example. Those were the three killer apps that would run on a standalone microcomputer, and that individually or in some combination gave people incredible analytical and publishing capabilities that they had never had before.

That helped stimulate the requirement for more memory, more processing speed and then more peripheral devices beyond the 8-inch floppy with — what was it? — 60K of capacity. Now I've got a gigabyte of storage on my keychain.

It was the physical PC, which was not invented by IBM, but validated with the IBM name, because Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were already manufacturing Apple IIs in their garage. That became a fad and a cult on the Apple computer side, but then it became big business over on the IBM clone side.

So the three applications that I mentioned before were the killer apps. And it was really the networking of the microcomputers that started challenging the mainframes — and put Wang out of business.

So right now, SpaceDev is more on the hardware side of developing the enabling technology, in terms of extremely high-performance, low-cost satellites. We've got a project right now at the Air Force Research Laboratory, that we call SSBT, small satellite bus technology. The whole purpose of this $750,000 program is to turn us loose in defining modular, plug-and-play, hardware- and software-oriented microsatellite buses. We are not only doing that, we are actually implementing it in our three Missile Defense Agency satellites.

These are truly plug and play. The subsystems will be interconnected with industry-standard interfaces — Ethernet, USB and RS422, take your choice. Guess what operating system we're running under? Linux. It's free! We're writing object-oriented software modules like device drivers.

One of the things were doing that’s fun is, with our little Air Force Research Lab contract, we're actually going to put together a satellite simulator that is a "flatsat" sitting on the tabletop. To prove the point, it's our intention to take this SimSat out to space conferences, have it right there in our exhibit booth, and challenge somebody to go over to Best Buy, buy some USB device, bring it into the conference, plug it in to our SimSat and let it run. When we get to that point, the capabilities of satellites will continue growing exponentially, the reliability is going to go up, and right now, we're maintaining a level cost. It's like when you go buy a PC every few years, you're paying about the same amount.

MSNBC: Right. You have a more capable computer, but the price is the same as it was for the less capable computer you bought three years ago.

Benson: Exactly. ... We haven’t even hit our stride yet, in terms of total plug-and-play modularity, but we will with the MDA satellites and other satellite products. So we're getting there.

MSNBC: But about the killer apps?

Benson: I think there are two potential ones. The first and more immediate one is human space transport. That's vitally needed. Well, let me back off: We don’t need it at all. There's no requirement for people to go to space. The international space station is up there, it's a huge expense, totally underutilized, we can hardly get people up there at all. And we certainly can't get enough up there to actually make it worthwhile for the investment that's been put into it.

We've got space tourists who are increasingly willing and able to spend at least $200,000. A hundred million to go to the moon? I wouldn't want to be the first one to try a technology like that, but someone may eventually do it.

Then there's Bigelow Aerospace: Bob Bigelow is a very serious, thoughtful, strategic thinker, and a highly accomplished businessman. I think his Transhab-based, inflatable modules are probably going to work and be cost-effective. He's going to need to get people up to them, and that's why he's offered the $50 million America's Space Prize.

MSNBC: Will you be going after the $50 million orbital prize with your Dream Chaser orbital spaceship?

Benson: The Dream Chaser would not qualify if it gets federal funding. There may be a way. ... As a publicly funded company, SpaceDev has more options available for raising money than smaller, privately owned companies do.

Our original concept for Dream Chaser was designed around an existing NASA technology vehicle, the X-34, which was designed to fly at Mach 6 to 7 and test thermal systems. It would have been a great suborbital vehicle, because that's what it was designed for. That was the good news. The bad news was that it wasn’t designed for people. So we would have had to re-engineer it internally.

But what we were interested in was what's called the outer mold line. It's expensive to come up with that, through all of the modeling and wind-tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics, so that you have a shape that can withstand the hypersonic speeds and the levels of heat that are generated.

When our focus was on suborbital spaceflight, the X-34 made sense. But then we received from funding from NASA's Ames Research Center, and we were able to go into our concept more deeply and use the great analytical tools that they have at NASA Ames. And when we did re-entry simulations on the X-34, the leading edges and nose were too sharp, and the heating would be right at the ragged edge of what thermal protection systems could withstand.

So then we looked around for another existing designed vehicle with the right shape. We haven't announced which one or ones fit those criteria, but we did find something. We came up with what we think is a very simple and practical approach that requires no new technologies whatsoever. And that’s a big problem with most of these systems, is that they do require new technology. That becomes very expensive and very risky. Schedules tend to slip when you’re developing a new technology for a specific application. So we were very careful to design SpaceDev Dream Chaser around existing technology, and we simply scaled up our rocket motors to a larger size.

MSNBC: So I take it the current artist's conceptions of the Dream Chaser are out of date?

Benson: That design has been superseded. But we haven't publicly identified what our approach is, because this is a competitive arena.

There are upcoming solicitations from NASA that could provide partial funding for the development of new capabilities. It's unlikely that NASA is going to fund any small company for human spaceflight, because of the perceived risk and liability.

MSNBC: The message from NASA Administrator Mike Griffin seemed to be that the agency wouldn't commission a company to come up with a spacecraft just for NASA, but if there was something a company had that NASA could use, he wouldn't rule out buying a ride on that spacecraft.

Benson: Exactly. That's good news. But then the bad news is, so what? Where does the money come from to do the development? Well, it may be that an upcoming NASA solicitation may provide some development money for unmanned cargo capabilities. If a small company like SpaceDev won a fairly large development contract for cargo delivery, then that would take the burden off developing the manned part of the project. Maybe that could be financed outside the government. Then you'd wind up with a system that might qualify for the America’s Space Prize.

So that's all one topic. That probably is an immediate killer application. I think all that is necessary, but I don’t think it's sufficient to get humanity bootstrapped off the planet and into self-sustaining settlements elsewhere.

Benson: Then there's the other killer app — and this is mundane, people fall asleep when I talk about it. You have the main asteroid belt out between Mars and Jupiter, and the minor asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. Scientists believe that there are approximately 100 million objects in the minor asteroid belt. It's known that 25 percent of those are energetically the easiest bodies to get to in the solar system. They're energetically easier to get to than the moon, even though the moon is two and a half days away and the asteroids are weeks and months away. Energy equals money.

Then there's more good news: Scientists believe and hope that approximately 20 percent of those 100 million objects may be dormant comets. That means there may be 20 million deposits of water in orbits around the sun between the earth and Mars. Well, 20 percent of 25 percent of 100 million translates into 5 million deposits of water that are the easiest things to get to in the solar system. Water is hydrogen and oxygen, and that’s rocket fuel.

Decades ago, science-fiction author Robert Heinlein said that when we get to Earth orbit we’re halfway to anywhere. What he meant was that the amount of energy to get us to Earth orbit is equal to the amount of energy needed to get us anywhere else in the solar system from Earth orbit. The problem we have today is that once we get to Earth orbit, our tanks are empty — and it requires a huge effort to get beyond Earth orbit, and that's why very few missions go out into to deep space.

If you had a railroad tanker car full of water in Earth orbit, that would be 100 tons of water. People recognize that it costs $5,000 to $10,000 per pound to get anything off the surface of the earth into orbit. That means lifting that amount of water into Earth orbit would cost $1 billion to $2 billion. If you were able to send a robotic drill and extraction device to one of the easiest and cheapest of the 5 million deposits of water, and bring back that much water back to Earth orbit, using the water itself as propellant, you'd wind up with an asset in low Earth orbit worth $1 billion to $2 billion.

Now we'd have a filling station. We can refuel our tanks, and we can open up the rest of the solar system. That's the killer app.

More specifically, the killer app is solar thermal water propulsion. That means taking something as simple as mirrors in space — where the solar energy is intense — simply reflecting that intense sunlight onto a little heat exchanger, squirting water from a big bag through the heat exchanger, flashing it to superheated steam out the nozzle in the back, and off you go.

That is what we refer to at SpaceDev as an elegantly simple solution. Elegant simplicity is what's going to open up space, and solar thermal water propulsion is elegantly simple. It goes out and brings back the very substance that is life support in its essence, water. And liquid water is also rocket propulsion.

There are 5 million deposits of water out there, that are the easiest things to get to in the solar system. Why in the world are we looking at deep dark craters at the south pole of the moon that are operating at nearly absolute zero? There's no sunlight down there. There's no energy down there. Even if there's water, it's more like a frost mixed in with frozen dust, sand and gravel. How are you going to mine it, extract it and put it to use? It's ludicrous, especially when we've got 5 million deposits of water that is 50 to 80 percent pure.

MSNBC: So that's almost like a "killer instrumentality," where you have something that changes the equation for space travel.

Benson: Well, put it this way: Today, on Earth, we have concentrated portable energy that we can get from some convenient location and put in our tank to continue on our way to any destination we want. But when we get to space, our tanks are on empty and we're stuck. If we can get to low Earth orbit, and we can fill our tanks with concentrated portable energy — namely, water — then we've unlocked the solar system. It's directly analogous. That's why I call dormant comets and water in space "white gold," as opposed to the black gold that allowed the modern industrial society to exist as it does today.

So I don't know if it's a killer application or a dramatically enabling technology. Call it what you will. I do think human spaceflight, suborbital and orbital, is going to be here. In four to six years were going to have the beginning of routine suborbital human spaceflight — and I believe that if SpaceDev, for example, got full funding, we would be initiating routine orbital spaceflight around 2010. So I think we're getting that close. You can almost taste it.

MSNBC: How do you see the architecture developing for this new space marketplace? Will there be the kind of "coopetition" that we've seen in the software industry?

Benson: There's got to be competition. That's just what makes our world go around. I think competition is a good thing. But there are instances where, for example, SpaceDev could wind up collaborating with SpaceX in utilizing their launch vehicles while at the same time we're developing our own very similar SpaceDev Streaker small launch vehicle. SpaceX would see that as a boost for them because it increases their credibility, it increases their production, it reduces their cost, it increases their profits, and it allows them to move on to the much larger launch vehicles that Elon Musk has envisioned since founding the company. And that allows us to finally unleash the demand for microsatellites which is being held back by the lack of cheap launch capability.

So we may wind up collaborating with Musk on launch vehicles while we're developing our own. Then somewhere down the road we may or may not complete SpaceDev Streaker, and if or when we do, then we'll be launching our own microsats on our own launch vehicles. But at that point, I think SpaceX is probably going to be trying to launch things to the moon and Mars. And more power to him.

MSNBC: Do you expect that there will be a shake-out? Obviously, a lot of these early entrants in the market for suborbital spaceflight are not going to be able to get the whole way to offering something and being able to succeed.

Benson: I think the X Prize is a really good model. There were almost 30 registered entrants, and I would say that there were — let me count them all — one serious competitor. Who won, by the way! I had to think there and count them all up.

There were two or three serious, honest competitors who just didn’t have the wherewithal to do it, Armadillo Aerospace being one outstanding example. They were really going it alone and pioneering it from the absolute basics in the type of technology they were using, doing it very professionally, very scientifically and with a lot of credibility and even a sense of humor.

On the other side of the spectrum, I think we had two or three teams that wouldn't know a rocket if they saw one. Luckily they didn't really do much damage.

There's a little bit of the same thing going on in suborbital space tourism. There are a fewer number of companies than you had for the X Prize. But I do think you still have the spectrum of very serious, well-funded companies like Virgin Galactic; serious but underfunded companies like SpaceDev; a few companies that have some very good ideas but don't have much money; and on the other side of the spectrum there are two or three frauds out there. I don’t think yet they're doing much damage, and hopefully they won't kill people or result in any noticeable scandals.

This is a very serious and important business we're engaging in here — moving human space transport out of the government and into the private sector. I really think that can only be done with a lot of seriousness and practicality, focusing on simplicity, safety and affordability, and not just hyping some technologies and rushing to get something launched.