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Dream Chaser's countdown

An artist's conception shows the SpaceDev Dream Chaser spaceship in flight.

Space entrepreneur Jim Benson says he's well into the first stage of the development effort for his Dream Chaser suborbital spaceship, with seasoned shuttle commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson signing on as Benson Space Co.'s chief operating officer and chief test pilot.

"It's official - we've begun our countdown," Benson said.

Gibson is the latest former astronaut to make the leap over to private-sector spaceflight, joining the likes of Rick Searfoss (XCOR Aerospace's rocket test pilot), John Herrington (vice president and director of flight operations at Rocketplane Kistler), Jim Voss (at t/Space) and Wendy Lawrence (at Andrews Space).

Gibson has had a storied past at NASA - ranging from the trouble he got into for flying in an air show without the agency's authorization in the late 1980s, to his command of the first shuttle flight to dock with Russia's Mir space station in 1995. Now he's looking forward to taking more spaceflights over the next few years than he ever had during his 17 years with NASA.

"In all that time, they let me go to space just five times," he told me in his best aw-shucks tone during a phone interview today. "Gee, when this thing gets to be operational, I'll probably be able to go to space two or three times a day."

While Benson was at SpaceDev, the California-based company he founded nine years ago, Gibson served as an adviser for SpaceDev's bid to win a share of NASA's rocket development money under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS.

NASA turned down SpaceDev's bid, prompting Benson to start up a new company - Benson Space - and do a deal with his old company to develop spaceships for suborbital passenger service.

At the time, Gibson was still working as a commercial pilot at Southwest Airlines, the job that followed his retirement from the astronaut corps in 1996. This year, Gibson turned 60 - forcing him out of the commercial pilot pool. That provided an opening for his official entry in the commercial space race.

"I am just crazy about flying rockets," he said.

Benson Space announced today that it has worked out an agreement with SpaceDev for the first phase in the development of the Dream Chaser - a rocket-powered space plane that would launch vertically and land horizontally.

Dream Chaser's design is based on the HL-20 vehicle that NASA tested back in the 1980s. Because SpaceDev and its partners will be using a proven spacecraft design as well as an upgraded version of the hybrid rocket engines that powered SpaceShipOne to the edge of space two years ago, it shouldn't take all that long to turn the Dream Chaser into reality, Benson said.

"We're taking a recipe, mixing the ingredients together and baking the cake, so to speak," he said. "The matter for us is spaceship fabrication, rocket motor fabrication and integration. So I think we will have many fewer stumbling blocks than other people have who are starting from scratch."

The current agreement calls for a critical design review and a go/no-go decision on moving forward by the end of March. The second phase - which is still under discussion - would involve fabrication of a prototype Dream Chaser. Glide testing would begin next September, with the first powered flight in November. The third phase would call for building one to three Dream Chasers that could be used for suborbital space tours by the end of 2008. That schedule could slip, but so far the plan is proceeding ... well, according to plan, Benson said.

"We're involved in a race to space, and we're making it happen with just one concrete step after another," Benson declared.

SpaceDev and Benson Space already have begun working out the details of the Dream Chaser's design. "There are not even any foreseeable technical hurdles," Benson said.

A lot of space ventures falter on the financial hurdles rather than the technical hurdles: When Benson announced his new company back in September, he said he quickly completed an initial round of financing, and today he told me that he's in the midst of a second round - with a fund-raising trip to Europe and the Middle East planned early next year.

He declined to discuss the financial terms of the Phase 1 agreement with SpaceDev - an agreement in which SpaceDev is the supplier and Benson Space is the customer. But he repeated his view that the total development effort would cost $50 million.

Benson sees at least three avenues to profit:

  • First, there's the space tourism market - which has also brought XCOR, Rocketplane Kistler, PlanetSpace, Blue Origin and the  perceived front-runner, Virgin Galactic, into the commercial space race. "I still think that we're at least a year ahead of the competition," Benson said - which assumes that the other competitors won't be spaceflight-worthy until around 2010.
  • Second, Benson says it's possible that one of the COTS contractors - SpaceX or Rocketplane Kistler - will eventually bow out of the program, giving Benson Space a second chance for NASA funding. In any case, Benson is gearing up to compete for COTS' second phase, which would set aside more money for orbital space station resupply. This scenario would call for the Dream Chaser to go orbital - an option that has always been in the back of Benson's mind.
  • The third avenue foresees turning the Dream Chaser into an orbital space delivery system, capable of servicing Bigelow Aerospace's private-enterprise space modules. If no government money is spent on developing the Dream Chaser, "that would qualify us for the $50 million Bigelow orbital prize," Benson said.

For Gibson, the key is developing a safe and reliable spaceship that's capable of frequent flights. Benson Space has specified that the Dream Chaser should be capable to making four suborbital spaceflights in 12 hours.

"The ultimate hope is that if you fly these things enough, you launch these things enough that you get the price down to thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands of dollars," Gibson explained. "Even if all you do is get it down to $50,000 a ticket, you certainly will have a big market."

Along the way, Gibson hopes the Dream Chaser might just show NASA that there's still a place for the winged, reusable planes most people think of when they dream of spaceships.

"NASA is going back to capsules and parachutes, and - how do I say this without saying it? - in some ways, that's going back 30 years," he said.