Headlines > News > Poway's SpaceDev part of historic civilian launch

Poway's SpaceDev part of historic civilian launch

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Fri Sep 24, 2004 3:28 pm
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With the countdown at T-minus five days and counting, SpaceDev founder Jim Benson says his small Poway company is ready to usher in a new era in space exploration. He calls it the era of the nonexploding rocket motor.

Last week, SpaceDev shipped the last of the rocket engines ordered by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan to power his SpaceShipOne rocket plane in a historic space shot set for dawn Sept. 29.

Mindful of the attention focused on the civilian space launch, Benson invited SpaceDev’s 30 employees to sign the three rocket engines before they were shipped to Rutan in Mojave, Calif.

Rutan plans to launch his star-spangled rocket ship from the freshly designated Mojave Spaceport in the first of two flights required to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

A group in St. Louis established the contest in 1996 to spur the development of an alternative space industry.

The winning spacecraft must carry a pilot and two passengers, or the equivalent weight of two passengers, to an altitude of 62 miles. The same spacecraft must repeat the trip within two weeks, and Rutan has tentatively scheduled his second flight for Oct. 4.

Neither Rutan nor Benson have disclosed the terms of of the contract awarded to SpaceDev. One of SpaceDev’s engines will be installed in SpaceShipOne for the Sept. 29 launch. Another was designated for the second launch, and the third was shipped as a spare.

The two space flights, if successful, could generate new attention for the Poway company.

Where a conventional rocket engine burns either solid or liquid fuel, SpaceDev’s rocket uses both. The hybrid motor burns a combination of synthetic rubber and laughing gas, which Benson says is no laughing matter because it won’t blow up.

He argues that SpaceDev’s propulsion technology shows that companies like his can develop safe human space flight faster and perhaps better than larger and more expensive government programs.

The upcoming launches are important, Benson said, “because the public will be much more aware of the event, and we’ve been trying to prove that we’re a critical component of their launch.”

But for Benson, the real significance of the upcoming launches has less to do with SpaceDev’s ability to deliver rocket engines than in the alternative approach to commercial space development that SpaceDev represents.

Since founding SpaceDev in 1997, Benson has often spoken zealously about the prospects for his company, which has stock that trades on the over-the-counter market. The company never completed its first mission, which was to send an unmanned spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid by 2001.

In recent years, however, the company’s business has strengthened and its finances have stabilized. A $2.3 million deficit narrowed to $200,000 by June.

“This has been the busiest month in our history,” Benson said.

In March, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency awarded SpaceDev a contract worth up to $43.4 million to develop micro satellites that can be networked in space. On Monday, SpaceDev announced plans to explore the development of a piloted, sub-orbital space ship of its own, called “Dream Chaser.”

SpaceDev hasn’t yet reported a profit, but the company showed a positive cash flow for the quarter ended in June. The company also has posted six consecutive quarters of revenue growth, culminating in sales of $1.2 million for the quarter ended in June.

“We have a real focus on creating a business now, and in creating shareholder value” said Richard Slansky, SpaceDev’s chief financial officer. “A lot of that has to do with our employees.”

Benson often compares SpaceDev and its development of microsatellites with the revolution in personal computers. He also views the huge aerospace companies that build and launch most satellites today as the equivalent to mainframe computer makers like Sperry and Burroughs in the 1970s.

“I see these very much in parallel,” Benson said. “The capabilities of small, low-cost satellites that are networked in space can match the capabilities of high-cost, mainframe satellites.”

But many experts are skeptical.

Comparing satellites to computers is a poor analogy because the aerospace market is simply too specialized, said William Alderman, an investment banker in South Norwalk, Conn., who specializes in the aerospace industry.

“Is there going to be a rocket on every kid’s desk at home?” Alderman asked. “Then why are we comparing this to personal computers? What we’re talking about – maybe – is that instead of one rocket launch a month, it will be two.”

Alderman also was doubtful that even a dramatic reduction in the cost of space launches will create much demand.

Some millionaires might be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a joyride in space, Alderman said, but he doubts the demand will ever come close to the market that exists today for, say, sailboats.

“The guys who build engines for 100-foot yachts have a bigger market than these guys.” Alderman said.

Recent changes in NASA spending policies should make it easier for small aerospace companies to survive, said Jon Kutler, an investment banker with Jeffries Quarterdeck in Los Angeles. But capitalization, not technology, remains the biggest key to the aerospace industry, Kutler said.

Like many entrepreneurs, Benson seems undaunted by such skepticism.

He acknowledged he has backed away a little from the mission he originally set for SpaceDev as a company that would shun government funding and focus solely on commercial space ventures.

“The goal of being a product company and of selling commercial space products is still our goal, but it’s going to take a few years to get there,” Benson said. “In the meantime, we’re a project company, and we need to focus on excellence in project management.”

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