“It's like déjà-vu, all over again.”
- Yogi Berra
The conference room buzzes with excitement. A standing room only crowd presses the podium to hear an internet-mogul-turned-space-entrepreneur talk about his plans to form a new space company. His bold, fresh, and optimistic vision inspires everyone who hears it. The new company will use state-of-the-art scientific data and technology to send a spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid, mine the asteroid, claim the asteroid for the company, and sell its wealth of resources back on Earth. The future of humanity has never looked brighter.
Along the way, the tech titan and his high flying team will force the legal community to recognize property rights in space - or at least acknowledge that it is time to stop ignoring the oh-so-important issue of space law. The company will also revolutionize space science and technology, paving the way for routine private access to destinations like the Moon, Mars, and Earth’s LaGrange points.
The new company’s name? I’ll give you a hint: it’s NOT “Planetary Resources.”
Flash back 14 years...
The year is 1998. The wealthy entrepreneur is Jim Benson, founder of Compusearch and ImageFast. The place is Milwaukee, WI, site of a National Space Society conference. The new company, the world’s first private space exploration company, would later be named SpaceDev.
How do I know all this? I was there, in the audience, somewhere near the back. I recall having trouble seeing the podium or the slides, but I could hear every word. And the words were music to my ears.
Understand, this was my first space conference ever. During the prior 15 years, I made my mark in the proprietary telecom-dominated world of Bell Labs. Jim Benson (and other conference speakers I’ve grown to admire and respect over the years, like Bob Zubrin, Marianne Dyson, and Peter Diamondis) opened my eyes to a whole new solar system of possibility.
Once the genie escaped the bottle, there was no turning back. I did my homework and switched careers two years later, becoming a Space Research Analyst at the Southwest Research Institute. My amazing 10+ years of “living and working in outer space” since then may never have gotten off the ground (no pun intended) if not for Jim Benson’s revolutionary vision.
Why is this segway into my own background so important? Because it guarantees the success of the newest space company on the block, Planetary Resources.
Planetary Resources: Déjà-vu all over again.
Fast forward to April, 2012. The media buzzes over a new, private spaceflight company named Planetary Resources. Its founders, including Peter Diamondis, radiate confidence. that their blend of wealth and vision will open the vast resources of the solar system to private development for the benefit of all mankind.
When I listen to the Planetary Resources founders, I hear Jim Benson. I fear for the new company’s future because I know some of the turmoil and ridicule that Jim endured during the 10 years following his address at the NSS conference, concluding with his untimely, tragic death in 2008 from a brain tumor. Benson’s Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) mission never got off the ground… but his legacy lives on through multiple spinoffs, prizes, foundations, and space technology projects. The folks at Planetary Resources have benefitted directly from Jim’s legacy in many ways; therefore his dream lives on through them.
For example, Benson’s SpaceDev company built the hybrid rocket engines that powered Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, the winner of Peter Diamondis’s Ansari X-Prize competition. Connect the dots in many other spaceflight developments over the past decade and you’ll quickly encounter a dot created or touched by Jim Benson.
Planetary Resources can also learn some business lessons from SpaceDev, now a division of the Sierra Nevada Corporation which operates several space R&D centers in the Denver area.
Space is a tough business. Planetary Resources needs a concrete business plan, yet they also need the courage to be flexible so they can take advantage of new knowledge and opportunities over the coming years. Our scientific understanding of near-Earth asteroids has barely scratched the surface. Any plans developed today to visit a near-Earth asteroid will undoubtedly seem naïve years from now, just as Benson’s initial ideas for his NEAP mission seem so naïve.
If this sounds like a recipe for creating a small fortune in space by starting with a large fortune, it isn’t. Many media commentators or space industry analysts completely miss the point when they want to know every technical and scientific detail right now. The details - and revenue opportunities - will develop over time, as long as the vision (and funding) endures.
For now, the most important goal is to spread Jim Benson’s vision. We need to share the benefits of space exploration and development with people in all walks of life because they’re the ones who will benefit.
Planetary Resources has already infected some capable engineers, scientists, and students with the worthy dream of an opulent future when humanity can routinely access the wealth of the solar system. That's a good start. These future space industry workers will contribute more great ideas and accomplishments. Eventually their dreams will become reality.
Somewhere out there, Jim is smiling.