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Sunday, Oct 1, 2023

Aerospace–Firm Edges Closer to Marketing Space

POWAY , As scientists struggle to detect signs of life from the Mars Polar Lander, lost in December after attempting a landing on the Red Planet, Jim Benson is celebrating the growing possibility that his company’s plans for commercial deep space missions will soon become reality.

Benson, CEO of SpaceDev., Inc. in Poway, has reason to feel confident. Last week, his company made a pact with aerospace giant Boeing Co.

Under the agreement, the Boeing Space and Communications Group in Huntington Beach will work with SpaceDev’s space missions division to investigate a variety of small, low-cost, deep-space mission initiatives.

Over the next few months, the companies will refine and advance SpaceDev’s concept of commercial missions to the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids. The effort also includes a global assessment of the market potential for such missions.

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SpaceDev, touted as the world’s first commercial space exploration company, has presented three ideas to Boeing: a lunar orbit mission in 2001 that will broadcast live, streaming video on the Internet; a proposed Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) mission in 2002; and a Mars mission in 2003.

Estimated cost of each mission ranges between $20 million and $30 million.

“This partnership with Boeing takes us a giant leap forward in inexpensive, deep-space missions,” said Benson, who has invested about $3 million of his own money into SpaceDev since its 1997 launch. “Boeing’s agreement to work with us to look at these (missions) does legitimize what I and SpaceDev have been saying.”

A Place, Not A Program

Just what is Benson’s vision?

“Space is a place, not a NASA program,” he said. “When people really understand that, they will realize that space is just another territory and it’s not so expensive anymore. Any company with a $30 million advertising budget can now afford to buy their own mission.”

For Boeing, teaming with SpaceDev will help the aerospace giant boost its growing space business.

“Boeing is the largest aerospace company in the world. We hope to soon be the largest space company in the world,” said Jayne Schnaars, director of strategic planning, Boeing Reusable Space Systems in Huntington Beach.

“I’m not sure anybody can accurately define what the commercial space market is going to be in 10 years, 15 years or 20 years,” she said. “We’re just going down every potential road that leads to a viable business in the future.”

Schnaars said Boeing also plans to align itself with other space companies, as well as Internet firms, in order to lead the commercial space race.

Internet Plans

SpaceDev officials are also looking to team up with Internet, entertainment and media companies.

“We have continued to investigate the value of previewing live interactive content from other planetary bodies like the moon, which is only three days away,” Benson said. “With all these Internet companies scrambling to provide content, this provides compelling content that will attract people to your Web site, which will attract advertisers to your Web site.”

He said live, interactive video is the wave of the future.

“We can provide 3-D streaming video that will allow you to see the mountains and craters flying by.”

Benson even believes that it’s possible to eventually attach a joystick to a PC to allow users to control the tilt and zoom of cameras in space.

“There are all sorts of spin-offs, such as games,” he said.

Providing entertainment, Benson explained, promotes space to the general public. He pointed to the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, which provided live video from the planet over the Internet.

Involving The Public

“NASA constantly needs things to re-enthuse the public so its funding doesn’t drop too much,” Benson said.

NASA spends $1 billion to $2 billion a year on space missions. About $100 billion a year is invested in space globally.

“Space is not going to happen on the taxpayer’s back, and that’s exactly where space has been since World War II, except for space communications and remote sensing,” Benson said. “Now we’re saying that space is a form of entertainment and it is now commercially open and available.”

Boeing is not the only aerospace company hooked on Benson’s concept.

Last year, SpaceDev teamed with Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Colorado to market SpaceDev’s unmanned NEAP mission.

If successful, the NEAP mission will be the first private mission to leave Earth’s orbit and the first mission to provide scientists and researchers fully insured access to deep space at fixed commercial prices.

NEAP, scheduled for launch in the fall of 2001, will conduct experiments for scientists who have paid to put their instruments on board. Data from the experiments will be relayed back to Earth.

Asteroid Mission

The mission will conclude with NEAP landing on the asteroid Nereus, where it will stay forever.

A newly discovered asteroid dubbed 1998 KY26 may be used as an alternative to Nereus.

SpaceDev’s mini-satellites can carry up to six instruments each. Cost for a slot on the NEAP is less than $5 million.

Dojin Ltd., a space marketing company based in Tyler, Texas, is the first NEAP commercial customer. The $200,000 contract, awarded last year, calls for SpaceDev to deliver a CD-ROM package from Dojin to Nereus.

The deal is part of Dojin’s Cosmic Voyage 2000 program, in which people can become “digital passengers” aboard the NEAP vehicle by placing their image or personal messages on a CD-ROM to be launched and preserved in space.

SpaceDev’s largest ongoing contract, valued at just under $5 million, is for CHIPSat, the first mission of NASA’s low-cost University Explorer program.

The program will place an ultraviolet telescope into Earth orbit to study areas between galaxies.

SpaceDev is working with Dr. Mark Hurwitz at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley on the project.

For Benson, low cost is the only way to fly.

“It’s taken two-and-a-half years to turn an industry around so I feel very vindicated that the hard work and money that has been put into this is on the verge of bearing fruition,” he said.


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