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PASSINGS : James W. Benson

Entrepreneur founded space firm

October 28, 2008|Times Staff and Wire Reports

James W. Benson, 63, an entrepreneur who founded the firm SpaceDev, which helped build the hybrid rocket engine that launched the world's first privately-built manned spaceship into suborbital space, died of a brain tumor Oct. 10 at his home in Poway, Calif.

The spaceship, built by aerospace innovator Burt Rutan, won the $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

Benson also started Compusearch and ImageFast, among the first full-text computer index and search systems that allowed people to search more easily through federal acquisitions regulations.

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Benson had a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

He began teaching himself about computers and joined the Carter administration, working in the solar division of the Energy Research and Development Administration as a liaison to local and state governments. He left the agency in 1977 and wrote several books for the Institute for Ecological Policies.

With his wife, Susan, Benson founded Compusearch Software Systems in 1984. There he developed algorithms and applications to create full-text indexes of government procurement regulations, which could also be searched. Benson also started ImageFast Software Systems in 1989, and it later merged with Compusearch. He sold the firm in 1995.

He started SpaceDev in 1997 and was chief executive of the space-exploration company until 2005 and board chairman until 2006. He remained on the board until his death.

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