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National Perspective | INNOVATION

Entrepreneur Sees Potential in Asteroid

Coloradan plans to land craft on space body. Aim is to develop it commercially by mid-2000.

January 07, 1998|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — In a chalet overlooking this resort town first settled by Old West prospectors, a wealthy entrepreneur is marketing what he hopes will be the first private spacecraft to claim ownership of an asteroid.

His pitch to investors?

SpaceDev, the world's first commercial space exploration company, aims to collect and sell scientific data--and scout a so-called near-Earth asteroid for deposits of iron, gold, platinum and other minerals potentially worth trillions of dollars.

The firm, which went public in October, expects to accomplish all this by mid-2000.

Some people think SpaceDev Chairman James Benson, 52, who made his fortune in the supercomputer industry, should leave the business of developing deep space to the governments of the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe.

But to Benson, the only question is: On precisely which of the 416 asteroids known to periodically drift into the vicinity of Earth's orbit should he plant his corporate flag?

Sitting beside an enormous stone fireplace, the blue jeans-clad Benson said he is responding to NASA's desire to revive the space program by encouraging private sector involvement.

"This is serious business," he said. "But we're not trying anything new, that is, beyond [landing] the first private spacecraft on an asteroid for the purposes of collecting data and establishing private property rights in space.

"Essentially, we're going into an existing billion-dollar market for data gathered in deep space," he said. "And we're going to do it for less than $50 million by using vintage--and fully insured--commercial launch vehicles."

By way of comparison, NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission will cost taxpayers about $250 million. That mission is expected to reach its final destination, asteroid Eros, on Jan. 10, 1999.

Getting his hands on a rocket powerful enough to escape the Earth's gravitational pull is the easy part. "These rockets range in price from $10 million to $50 million," Benson said. "We plan to spend about $12 million for ours."

If successful, SpaceDev's maiden voyage in late 1999 might take up to a year to complete. On board will be three SpaceDev instruments to analyze the target asteroid's size, composition and value. Room also will be available, at a total cost of about $111 million, for the scientific payloads of customers along for the ride.

The mission, which is expected to end with a controlled landing on an asteroid, would be directed by scientists and engineers based at either UC San Diego or the University of Colorado at Boulder.

To hear Benson tell it, the potential profits are staggering. Just one of these orbiting mountains of assorted minerals could supply the world economy at today's rates for hundreds of years.

Getting the minerals back to Earth, however, is a problem for later flights. "For right now," Benson said, "we hope to sell the data we collect to buyers, including NASA."

And stake a claim on the asteroid's property and minerals.

Given that international law governing ownership and exploitation of heavenly bodies is murky, that goal raises a galaxy of legal questions. After all, there is no office on Earth with which to stake claims in space. Nor is there a court that handles disputes between zero-gravity miners.

Not to worry. These issues will work themselves out in the marketplaces of the future frontier, John Lewis, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona-Tucson and a SpaceDev advisor, said by way of assurance.

"On a finite Earth, you eventually reach a point where there's no West left to go to with your feet on the ground," Lewis said. "The frontier we're exploring could provide unlimited resources to an unlimited range of entrepreneurs in amounts so large the classic dilemmas of who controls these mother lodes don't exist."

Sound far-fetched? NASA officials who are reviewing Benson's business strategies and engineering plans don't think so.

"Benson is clearly a very smart man doing this thing as well as it can be done right now--it's up to him to deliver," said Carl Pilcher, acting science director for NASA's solar system exploration program. "He's certainly hooked up with all the right people to help him do it."

Pilcher was referring to Space-Dev's board of advisors. Its members include Paul Coleman, professor emeritus of space physics at UCLA; James Arnold, professor emeritus of chemistry at UC San Diego, and Alan Binder, principal investigator of NASA's Lunar Prospector--a bargain basement $20-million probe, launched Tuesday to search for evidence of water on the moon.

"We all want humanity to get off this planet and explore the infinity of space, which could mean the survival of our species one day," Benson said. "Personally, I also want to have fun and make some money. I'd better. Failure would mean a serious financial blow to me."

Then, here on Earth, he added sheepishly, "My family would be really upset."

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