Lewis Geyer / Times-Call
|Malcom Buckley, 4, plays underneath a full-scale mockup of the Dream Chaser
spaceship during a June unveiling in Colorado. SpaceDev's Jim Benson says he is
forming a new company to turn the Dream Chaser into a reality.
Once upon a time, back in the 1980s, NASA had a concept for a "lifting body" spaceship known as the HL-20, which could have been used as a smaller-scale backup for the space shuttle.
NASA ended up going in a different direction. But last year, Jim Benson - the founder of a California-based company called SpaceDev - updated the idea and called it the "Dream Chaser." This year, the Dream Chaser was a finalist in NASA's $500 million program to encourage new commercial spaceships capable of reaching the space station.
Unfortunately for SpaceDev, NASA went in a different direction again last month, awarding the money to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler to demonstrate their own yet-to-be-developed spaceships. Nevertheless, Benson intends to keep chasing his dream, and now he's founded a new venture called Benson Space Co. for that purpose.
Benson's new venture was first reported online by The Wall Street Journal.
Even before SpaceDev failed to make the final cut for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, Benson had been talking privately about branching out to focus more squarely on using the Dream Chaser as a space tourism vehicle. SpaceDev was turning a profit - producing satellites for NASA as well as other private and government clients, and developing the hybrid rocket engine technology that was used in SpaceShipOne, the first private-sector spaceship.
That success buoyed Benson, but he was looking for new challenges - and today's Journal article signals that he has settled on the challenge he wants to take. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever done," Benson told the Journal.
He says he has quickly raised the first $1 million for what he expects will eventually be a $50 million development effort - resulting in a craft that could take up to six fliers on a suborbital space ride for somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 each. The Dream Chaser could become a reality as early as 2009, Benson told the Journal. (You can sign up for a reservation even now via Benson Space's Web site, with a $25,000 deposit.)
If Benson's new plan follows the outlines of his previous plan, those suborbital trips would be powered by a SpaceShipOne-style hybrid rocket. The revenue could fuel more ambitious plans and bigger rockets, eventually leading to orbital flights.
But there are lots of questions still to be answered: How well will Benson's new venture mesh with his old venture at SpaceDev? Will he raise enough money to keep up with billionaire competitors such as Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos? When you add in Rocketplane Kistler, XCOR Aerospace, PlanetSpace, Armadillo Aerospace and all the other players in the still-developing suborbital space tourism industry, it's starting to look like a crowded playing field. Is there room for one more?
On the other hand, Benson is one of the few entrepreneurs out there who's actually turned a profit in the commercial space race. For that reason alone, he shouldn't be written off as just another dream chaser.
Update for 1:45 a.m. PT Sept. 28: Benson e-mailed me to say that "Benson Space will become an important customer of SpaceDev, paying SpaceDev for the development of the Dream Chaser spaceships and for the rocket motors to power them on each flight. ... The $1 million was Phase 1 money, successfully completed, and I am currently raising Phase 2 money - up to $50 million."
He also sent along this news release:
"Poway, CA (September 27, 2006) – Having earned a reputation as a successful technology innovator and entrepreneur for more than two decades, Jim Benson today announced that he has stepped down as chairman and chief technology officer of the company he founded nearly a decade ago, SpaceDev (OTCBB: SPDV), in order to launch an ambitious new venture focused on commercial space tourism, Benson Space Company (BSC).
"'I am dedicated to opening space for all of humanity and, with SpaceDev well-managed and growing, I plan to spend the next several years creating the possibility that anyone who wants to go to space will be able to, safely and affordably,' said Benson. SpaceDev owns many of the patents and intellectual property rights associated with hybrid rocket motors used for safe human spaceflight. Under Benson's guidance, SpaceDev developed hybrid rocket motor technology and furnished all of the rocket motors for Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne, the craft that earned the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.
"Benson Space Co. (www.bensonspace.com) has completed its first round of financing and submitted a request for proposal to SpaceDev for the design and development of its SpaceDev Dream Chaserœ spaceships. BSC expects to be one of SpaceDev's largest customers, purchasing multiple spaceships and safe hybrid rocket motors for use in personal spaceflight.
"'My biggest challenges over the next few months will be evaluating SpaceDev's response to our proposal request, negotiating the contract for the development of our first spaceships, and completing second-round financing for this new venture,' explains Benson. With the expectation that personal spaceflight will grow into a multibillion-dollar industry, Benson intends for BSC to be first-to-market with a spaceship designed for suborbital, and eventually orbital, flights. He predicts it will also be used to transport people and cargo to the International Space Station and to a variety of emerging private sector orbital destinations.
"'I am very proud of what has been accomplished at SpaceDev,' said Benson. 'The SpaceDev team has grown to over 200 employees in three states. SpaceDev designed and built a satellite for NASA, its rocket motor technology propelled civilians to suborbital space, and SpaceDev has provided mechanisms to over 200 space missions. The company continues to secure exciting new contracts for the design and development of high-performance, lower-cost, advanced space technologies. I have total faith in the management team and engineers at SpaceDev and am looking forward to working with SpaceDev's CEO, Mark Sirangelo, to bring the SpaceDev Dream Chaser to market. The "Second Space Age" is here, and a new race to space is on!'
"Benson will remain a member of SpaceDev's board of directors. He and his family continue to own the largest amount of SpaceDev stock, approximately one-third of the issued and outstanding shares.
"Benson invented modern text indexing and searching in 1984, founded and ran Compusearch for eleven years, and sold the company in 1995. Benson founded SpaceDev in 1997. He is a founding director of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, a trade association representing the emerging new personal spaceflight industry. He obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in geology from the University of Missouri in 1971 and was honored as Alumnus of the Year in 2005.
"Benson Space Company is incorporated in the state of Nevada."