Into orbit, on a budget
In the future, when historians sit down to write about space exploration, the year 2001 will present a problem. Some chroniclers will be tempted to rehash the extravagant fantasies of Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick; but others, more thorough, may feel obliged to give an account of the comparatively humdrum activities of a company called SpaceDev.
On a guided tour of the office – a converted indoor shooting range, near San Diego – Jim Benson, founder, chairman and chief executive, begins with a presentation of artwork. The pictures are fine, but after 45 minutes it becomes difficult to share fully Benson’s enthusiasm for a seemingly endless series of artists impressions of the development of one small satellite.
Eventually he moves on, says, “And this is our mission control centre,” and gestures with pride towards a windowless room – roughly the size of the lavatory down the corridor – containing precisely two PCs, both currently dormant, and a telephone bundled up in its cable.
But it’s precisely because of the company’s stripped-down, shoestring appearance that it could just possibly be historic. Despite having a staff of just 25, SpaceDev has the ability to design, build and propel its own spacecraft. Members of the team have between them worked on 30 missions in near-earth orbit and 12 in deep space, including the Apollo programme, Galileo and the Mars Pathfinder. And in the relatively short period since it was founded, in 1997, the Nasdaq-listed company has forged contractual arrangements with some highly credible partners, including universities, private companies and government agencies. Within a few years, SpaceDev – and a few companies like it – could utterly transform the ordinary person’s conception of space, capturing the popular imagination in a way that has not seemed possible since the 1960s.
Already, senior figures in the industry have described Benson as a businessman no less significant than Henry Ford. Others prefer the terminology of the Klondike, or pioneering American settlers. “If they are successful,” says Dr Jeff Kargel of the US Geological Survey, “I don’t harbour a single doubt that SpaceDev will be written into the history books alongside such names as the Virginia Company of London, and Hudson’s Bay Trading Company.”
In Benson’s office – where the decorations include a poster of the Milky Way and a wide-shot of Mars – he produces a sheet of paper showing his projections for the future of space exploration. On the left are projects he considers likely to be completed within the next two or three years; on the right, developments that Benson, aged 55, can only hope will be realised in his lifetime.
He’s willing to discuss the more far-fetched possibilities – including human settlements on the moon which may turn out to be bitterly inglorious, full of overworked drones and interplanetary prostitutes. But he knows that this kind of conjecture can appear distressingly flakey to serious-minded investors, and prefers to discuss achievements that are already within reach.
Everything SpaceDev proposes to do, Benson insists, has been done already. That’s not the kind of boast you expect to hear from a pioneer, but the point is that SpaceDev claims it can produce the results at significantly lower cost than before. By putting together the same missions again and again, using off-the-shelf technology, SpaceDev can come in at one-tenth Nasa’s cost. He’s devised a term for these projects: “You could call them McMissions’.”
Benson grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where the Benson Manufacturing Company was a major employer. In 1955, he read a book by Isaac Asimov which hooked him on science fiction, and a few years later he got hold of his own telescope. “I remember setting it up in the front yard, and seeing the rings of Saturn. That blew my mind. For years I’d been carrying a book with photographs, but those pictures were fuzzy, and here I was, actually seeing another planet with my own eyeball. I was transfixed.”
The interest in space, typical of boys in his generation, was supplemented by an enthusiasm for mechanics; and at the local university – where he majored in geology – Benson came across an ad for a computer. (“I thought, Wow!”) Wondering why he’d never seen such a thing, he went looking for the university’s own model, and when he found it he borrowed the manuals. Unlikely as it seems, reading those fat tomes proved to be an epiphany: “It was one of those moments, when a person discovers the thing they’re gifted at.”
And so it was – to cut a long story short – that Benson became a computer whizz, moved to Washington to work in the nascent computer industry against the dramatic backdrop of Watergate and Vietnam, and founded a computer company which developed the kinds of technology used by internet search engines. In 1995 he sold up, retiring with his wife and millions of dollars to a new life in Colorado.
But within six months they were bored. And this is where Benson’s interest in space – and his training as a geologist – kicked in. In 1996, he signed up to attend a conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, in Hollywood. “My biggest fear was that there were going to be a lot of Star Trek freaks, all dressed up in their costumes.” That didn’t happen, but Benson still left disappointed. “I went as an investor, and met a lot of people. I read all their business plans, but in the end I said, no way.” The most exciting proposals, it seems, relied on technology that does not exist. So, characteristically methodical, Benson sat down to read copious amounts of space literature, drew up a shortlist of the finest minds in the industry, and emailed them, one by one, for advice. One who replied was Steve Ostro of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who’d recently been studing the composition of asteroids.
Breaking off from this retrospective, Benson rises from his desk and crosses the room. He takes a lump of dark material from his bookcase and drops it heavily in my hand. “It’s a meteorite, iron and nickel – naturally occurring stainless steel. Imagine a lump of that a whole mile wide.” Then he pulls two books from his shelf: Mining the Sky , and Resources of Near-Earth Space . “It costs $10,000 per pound to get [anything] into orbit. So if something is already in space” – where it can be fashioned by robots into more robots, or rockets, or settlements for humans to colonise – “it’s worth $10,000 per pound already.”
With this big idea, Benson formed SpaceDev and recruited his team. And after commissioning an independent feasibility study he announced – with considerable fanfare – that the company’s first project would be the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector. Modelled on a similar Nasa mission, NEAP would represent an important milestone: the first commercially designed and executed mission to travel beyond earth orbit. (It would also cost $225m less than Nasa’s version.) Over 13 months, NEAP would travel 2.5m miles to Nereus – one of 300 or so asteroids identified among earth’s nearest neighbours – and when it arrived, Benson would claim the asteroid as his own.
To students of international law, this posed a problem. A United Nations treaty decreed that anything of value in space belongs to all humanity, and that any profits made in space must be distributed to all of humanity. If the treaty were enforced, Benson acknowledges, that would put an immediate end to commercial development of space. But he doesn’t believe that will happen, because the treaty was not ratified by the US, “or any major spacefaring nation”.
In the event, though, NEAP had to be postponed because Nasa declined to fund the scientific experiments that, proposed by third-party academics, would have covered the costs. The tension implicit in Benson’s relationship with Nasa is easy to detect: “The upper-level people have been very supportive in many ways,” he concedes, ”[but] I believe mid-level bureaucrats found a number of excuses not to fund [NEAP] because they fear that private deep-space missions threaten their jobs.”
All the same, NEAP remains a priority, and the passing of time has made its prospects more attractive. Since 1997, the scientific community has become alert to the dangers posed by asteroids crashing into earth, and put great effort into identifying as many as possible. Today, NEAP has three times as many potential targets, of which 250 could be lucrative destinations. And if the desired asteroid is not currently accessible, no matter: it takes just 30 months for any one of them to circle back into a convenient position.
To launch NEAP, SpaceDev needs “just $25m”, Benson says. With that in place, the mission can be launched within 18 months. But why would anybody supply that cash? What’s an investor supposed to do with a hoard of stainless steel – or platinum, or plutonium – 2.5m miles from earth? “We would do this, initially, as a proof of the concept. And when the mission sends back scientific data, that will be sold to cover the cost.” (Nasa alone spends $2bn a year on scientific data collected from space; and the cost of a single set of data from the Nasa mission on which NEAP was modelled, Benson points out, was $50m.)
Meanwhile, SpaceDev decided to try another project to break beyond earth orbit. After all, the point of McMissions is precisely that technology used in NEAP can be reused for any number of additional trips. But which planet, satellite or asteroid would most attract investors? Using the tip of his ballpoint, Benson presses circles into his palm. “This is the earth,” he says, “and this is the moon. And way over here is… Mars”.
The relative proximity of the moon was decisive, enabling SpaceDev to take advantage of an additional source of revenue: unique, digital pictures streamed directly from the spacecraft to a site on the internet. Anybody who wishes will be able to watch some version of these images and even – for a fee – control the camera from their PC. (Transmissions from Mars, by contrast, would be frustratingly slow.) Early in 2000, SpaceDev signed up Boeing as a partner to develop the lunar orbiter, and Benson also consulted James Cameron, the film director, on how to use these visuals.
Then there’s CHIPSat, a microspacecraft designed to carry a single scientific instrument in earth orbit. Though less glamorous than the other missions, this one has received approval – and funding – from Nasa, and is will probably be the company’s first launch.
Simon Dawson, one of the youngest members of SpaceDev’s small team – born, as it happens, during Neil Armstrong’s mission to the Moon on Apollo 11 – is manager of astrodynamics and mission operations. “That means I help to plan where CHIPSat will be, and what it can see,” Dawson explains, in an accent that blends southern California with his native Wirral.
Today, Dawson’s plotting a course for the satellite which will enable it to examine slices of sky without the sun, moon or earth getting in the way; while also ensuring that its solar panels are supplied with light. That’s tricky, because at just 600km altitude virtually half the sky will be hidden behind the earth. A terrifying tangle of red lines on his computer screen indicate the 15 circuits CHIPSat will complete in one typical day: among many complications Dawson must build into his model are the varying degrees of gravitational pull exerted on satellites by different parts of our imperfectly-spherical planet: there’s an marked difference, he points out, between low-lying Holland and the Himalays.
And how will CHIPSat get off the ground? The slightly disappointing answer is that SpaceDev will pay somebody else to launch it. CHIPSat will go up on a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. Charlie Lloyd, SpaceDev’s chief financial officer, says it’s simply not affordable for small companies to launch their own missions. The cheapest way up is to hitch a ride as secondary payload on somebody else’s satellite launch. “But hitchhikers always get dropped off in the wrong place,” Benson adds. “That’s why we need a kick motor – to maneouvre into a sustainable orbit when we’re up there.”
In a room like a garage, they show me SpaceDev’s facility for testing kick motors. At the centre of the room is a trailer – of the sort you might hitch behind your car – with a dividing wall mounted along its centre, running from front to back. Onto this wall technicians have fixed gas tanks, pipes and dials; and at the back there is a red crate, positioned directly between the garage doors so that flames burst into the car park outside. (Fire authorities instructed SpaceDev to test-fire its motors inside the building, but without stipulating that the flame must stay inside.) Sensors on the crate measure thrust, and any sideways movement; and a web cam, positioned slightly to one side, monitors the shape of the 5,000degree flame. Information from both sources – and elsewhere – is relayed to a PC in the next room, where the entire staff assembles to watch each test firing.
And what do they use as fuel? From a corner of the room, Benson lifts a cyclinder of plexiglas: the same stuff used to make children’s drinking beakers. “We use this,” he says, grinning because he knows the idea seems incredible. “This, combined with laughing gas [nitrous oxide].”
“Most rocket fuel is deadly: toxic at the slightest whiff, and highly explosive. Also, liquid oxygen, which is needed to burn most fuels, involves extremely expensive cryogenics. Our hybrid motor, by contrast, is cheap and harmless. The exhaust is carbon dioxide. There are no pumps – just a valve – and the motor can be turned off at will. It’s got to be safe, because otherwise people wouldn’t give us a ride. They’d say: ‘What! You want to put a bomb – a toxic bomb – on my satellite!?’”
Hybrid technology has been around for decades, but it’s constantly overlooked because it has the single disadvantage of being less powerful than other methods. A company called Amroc spent $25m researching hybrid motors; and SpaceDev, having acquired the intellectual property when Amroc went bust, is developing that research on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (the agency responsible for US spy satellites).
“Hybrid motors are not high tech. They’re not sexy. But we can put one together and keep it in a warehouse and when we need it just pick it up and bolt it on… This motor truly increases the market for micro satellites. And five or six companies have already asked if they can use them for the X Prize.”
Ah, the X Prize. Since Gagarin, fewer than 400 people have travelled to space. The single greatest impediment is the sheer expense of launching a vehicle beyond the earth’s atmosphere – roughly 100 km – and that’s because nobody has ever built a truly reusable vehicle. Many in the commercial sector say this is a result of leaving space exploration to government agencies: too busy competing with each other in the production of one breakthrough after another, Nasa and its counterparts never bothered to build repeatable technology. The X Prize, launched by a company in St Louis, Missouri, offers $10m to the designers of the first privately funded vehicle capable of carrying three adults to 100km, return them safely, and launch again within two weeks.
As everybody in the industry knows, winning the X Prize is worth more than $10m. The winner will also enjoy a substantial advantage in the potentially lucrative market for space tourism. To understand how valuable that market is, you should understand that many wealthy individuals have already put down money for rides on space planes even though they haven’t been invented; and one who couldn’t wait, Californian Dennis Tito, spent $20m – yes, that much – on a trip to the ailing Mir Space Station. (Even Tito, currently training with cosmonauts in Moscow, may have to wait for a space plane, as the Russian authorities recently decided to crash Mir into the Pacific before his trip takes place.)
Nearly 20 teams have registered for the X Prize. Most propose to harness existing technologies: for example, using aeroplanes to pull the spaceplanes part of the way, or refuelling in mid-air. Whether any of them will succeed is impossible to say, but Benson certainly considers hybrid motors an advantage. Lloyd puts it like this: Not long ago I was sceptical about space planes. Most fuel is too dangerous. People need to be able to buy a ticket and tell their wives – and mostly it will be men who are interested in this, I think – ‘Honey, you know what the fuel is? It’s plexiglas. And by the way, that works with nitrous oxide. Oh, and also you can turn it off.’ (Actually, Benson points out, space planes will probably not use plexiglas but another type of high-density hydrocarbon, more like rubber. The cylinders, 18 inches in diameter, will be six feet long.)
The price of tickets, Benson estimates, will be around $100,000, dropping rapidly as the market is established. That’s a lot of money: what kinds of thrill will the passengers experience? “On the way up,” says Benson, “you’ll experience about a minute of G3 [three times the gravity experienced of earth]. Then your arms will be weightless, and blood will rushing in your head… It may be even possible – if people wear space suits, and they’re strapped safely inside – for the plane’s canopy to open, so that you really are ‘in space’. And just imagine how clear the stars will appear then.”
And Lloyd, equally enthusiastic, says: “We believe in small steps. All human progress has been in small steps. With the lunar orbiter, we want to put people’s eyes on the moon. You’ll feel like you’re really there: you can pan, tilt, and zoom the camera, controlling it through the internet on your own PC. At the same time, we hope to be involved in space planes. Initially, we may only take people 60 miles high. But when you have those two small steps you’ve closed the gap on ordinary people getting to space. Suddenly, space will seem interesting again.”
3021 words. First published 30 December 00. © FT Magazine