Interview with "space businessman"
Published online: 5 September 2005; | doi:10.1038/news050905-3
Making space for small businesses
Jim Benson shot to fame when SpaceShipOne made its
record-breaking, privately funded flight last year; he is the
founder of SpaceDev, the company that supplied the craft's
engines. Mark Peplow talks to him about the future of commercial
What proof do you have that small businesses can make their mark
Well, every project we've done has come in on budget and on time.
We have small teams, no bureaucracy, and we let engineers get on
with being engineers. Some big companies spend hundreds of
millions of dollars just thinking about a problem.
When I founded SpaceDev in 1997, I was told by people in the
industry that it was impossible to do satellites for less than
$40 million. CHIPSat, which carries NASA's Cosmic Hot
Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer and was our very first craft,
cost $7.8 million. We did mission control from a laptop computer,
with all of the operations carried out over the Internet. None of
that had ever been done before.
Do you think the new NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, will help
private enterprise to flourish?
Earlier in his career, Mike Griffin was technology vice-president
of the American Rocket Company, which spent eight years working
on the hybrid rocket motors that we later developed for
SpaceShipOne. So I had high hopes for him. But he has now made it
clear that NASA is going with its existing contractors.
I'm worried that to finance the 'vision for space', NASA is going
to sweep aside dozens of innovative little projects that would
help to demonstrate stepping stones for exploration. If that
happens, it'll be a minor tragedy. Companies such as SpaceDev,
given a small amount of money, can accomplish a lot. The same
amount would add just a fraction of a decimal point to funding at
Lockheed or Boeing.
Are you hoping to offer cargo flights to the International Space
Station, something that Griffin hopes will take the pressure off
We've been developing a manned vehicle called Dream Chaser, and
we could potentially use its propulsion system to launch a
10-tonne cargo pod to the International Space Station or low
NASA should release details of what size cargo they want to send
to the space station, and how often they will need those
launches. Right now we don't actually know what NASA's
requirements are going to be, so I don't know whether SpaceDev
will put together a proposal.
What about manned space flight: is there a role for you with
Part of the feedback we've got from NASA is that they simply
don't want to get involved with small companies on human space
flight because of the possibility of accidents.
What I really want to know is whether this is just a game for the
big boys such as Boeing, or whether there will be room for
innovative, smaller companies.
And manned space flight for tourism, do you think you could make
money out of that?
Absolutely, yes. Hand over fist, wheelbarrows full of money. You
just need to find the right investor to get it going. You had
Paul Allen on SpaceShipOne, now Richard Branson on SpaceShipTwo
for Virgin Galactic, and we still need to find our own backer for
Dream Chaser. With US$15 million we could be up and flying in a
couple of years.
What about getting to Moon or Mars?
We're working with Andrews Space of Seattle, Washington, on the
NASA-sponsored SmallTug project. This is a 150-kilogram robotic
craft that will use ion propulsion to get to the lunar L1 point,
where the Earth and Moon's gravity match each other, which is a
useful staging post to get to lunar orbit or Mars. It is
SpaceDev's first opportunity to design a deep-space vehicle.
At a cost of $19 million, I hope it will prove the point that I
made years ago: it's possible to get beyond low Earth orbit for
less than $25 million. NASA hadn't believed that was possible. If
all goes to plan, it should launch in 2008.
What's next for SpaceDev?
We're developing three satellites for the US military that cost
$7 million in total. They will be linked by a local area network
in space while they fly in formation. They have three times the
capabilities of CHIPSat, including higher processing power and
greater pointing accuracy.
It's like buying a PC every three or four years: you pay the same
price but you get a lot more power. SpaceDev is trying to bring
the same sort of microcomputer revolution to space.