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SpaceDev and Near-Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) to Asteroid Nereus

This article is outdated, from around 1998 but not updated.

SpaceDev LLC embarked on an effort to send a private sector probe to an asteroid, with the most likely candidate being 4660 Nereus. Due to difficulties in raising money, they missed their first ambitiously announced launch date (on a Russian launcher), but other business has taken off well, and SpaceDev has now switched to a smaller microsatellite design, launched from the Ariane as a secondary payload, possibly as early as January 2002 for a rendezvous with asteroid Nereus six months later.

The leading for-profit private sector venture as of mid-1998 was NEAP, an acronym for Near Earth Asteroid Prospector, a product being built by the publicly traded stock company SpaceDev, which in turn was founded and majority owned by the late Jim Benson. More information on this mission and company can be found at their website, http://www.spacedev.com. The rest of this page is just the PERMANENT synopsis and perspective of NEAP and SpaceDev with an emphasis on items not covered in their webpages.

NEAP has gotten many people interested in asteroidal resources, as SpaceDev is offering rides of scientific equipment to collect information on their targetted asteroid near Earth, 1982 DB Nereus, which is one of the most attractive asteroids for resources retrieval. The scientific equipment buying a ride on NEAP will get data which other companies could buy in order to do their own mining missions to the asteroid. SpaceDev is going to claim ownership of the asteroid. No matter what happens, a lot of legal issues are going to be debated and a lot of law developed over this mission. Jim Benson expresses keen interest in space law regarding property rights, and is a lively debater on the topic.

People talk a lot about Jim Benson, and I had the occasion to meet Jim at the Space '98 conference.

Jim Benson is a middle aged man who became a millionaire by selling his software company in the Washington, D.C., area, which he had developed into a major government contractor (aka a "beltway bandit"). After some time off in this retirement, he started researching what else he could do with his time and limited money, and sometime around 1996 or so came up with an asteroid prospecting venture.

Jim has done many things right, far more than anyone else in this field, and has several strengths. But there are some issues worth pondering if you follow such a model or are considering investing in SpaceDev.

Before even entering the field of space resources seriously, Jim learned the basic technical elements of this field. Jim is chiefly a businessman, and previously had no experience at all in the space development field. Nevertheless, he had confidence in himself and learned what he needed to.

Jim sent out mass mailings to keep a wide audience informed of his ideas, plans and accomplishments in a relatively open manner, something few others have done … and Jim wasn't all talk. Then Jim went out and talked to the leaders in this technical field in the context of business, including two of the foremost leaders, Dr. John S. Lewis and Dr. Jim Arnold, and Jim developed strategic relationships with them and their peers. Indeed, Jim established an enthusiastic relationship with NASA Director Dan Goldin, who is now a strong supporter of Jim Benson, as well as other NASA and Washington D.C. heavyweights.

Jim spent a lot of his own money getting things started. Jim incorporated SpaceDev, put together a good team, developed plans, and quickly converted his company into a publicly traded stock company (which raised some eyebrows by the tricks he had to pull to get a company public so quickly). Then Jim hired professional public relations people, did a press conference in Washington, D.C., and has been written about in many journalistic publications. Jim has been a speaker at many events and highly professional conferences. Along the way, SpaceDev acquired controlling interests in competant technical companies in San Diego and England (i.e., the latter two are "wholly owned subsidiaries" of SpaceDev) which strengthens SpaceDev in certain ways.

The main result to date of all this is a spacecraft called NEAP, the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector. SpaceDev is currently raising money by selling rides (payloads) on the spacecraft, offering space for several ejectable (e.g., for landing on the asteroid) and nonejectable instruments. It's not clear to me who will own the data from the various instruments and how confidential it will be, but there is a clear potential for the data to be sold to prospective mining companies. At the end of the mission, NEAP will land on the asteroid and SpaceDev will stake a claim to ownership of the property. As you can see, it's a brilliant plan.

NEAP is scheduled for launch on April 3, 2001. The current plan is that it will first prospect the lunar poles for water ice, making at least six close passes between 50 km and 10 km altitude over a period of nine months. Then it will fire another stage which will begin its four month trajectory to Nereus, where it will rendezvous in May, 2002.

Within two years of coming up with the idea, Jim has put together an impressive team with some of the very best and most experienced people in the space program.

It's been a whirlwind first two years for Jim Benson.

Some issues worth pondering, though:

First, with the guidance of professional corporate lawyers, Jim converted his company into a publicly traded stock company in order to raise money from the general public in the form of stock. From what I know of Jim based on all his actions and professional endorsements to date, not just his plans, and after a few face to face meetings with Jim, I don't find much room to question what Jim has done, especially relative to others. It appears that Jim has established a credible corporate entity leading to exploitation of asteroid resources … if Jim still wants to exploit asteroid resources. If not, he will create a better opportunity for others to do so.

Jim's company started issuing and selling stock in October 1997. I haven't done intensive research in this matter, but it appears to me as if Jim raised quite a lot of money over subsequent months with his initial investment, thought it is still pocket cash compared to the cost of countless other projects around the world. A Boston Globe article from June 1998 states that Benson has raised all but 6 to 8 million dollars of the 50 million required to build NEAP, but not including launch costs. It is a small spacecraft, so launch costs shouldn't be too much more.

On the other hand, who owns the stock, and how much of it? Who owns the majority? Who has control over the company's direction? I don't know. A privately held company may be able to maintain control and focus on its original intent better than a publicly traded company, but both ultimately depend upon those leading, guiding and controlling the company.

Judging from his speaking tours and intense involvement in his company, I don't think Jim Benson would readily sell his company and walk off with a profit as he did his computer company. But it would be interesting to find out who owns SpaceDev stock, what are their interests, and what pressures do they put to bear on the direction of the company.

SpaceDev has acquired a couple of other companies, Integrated Space Systems (ISS) of San Diego, California, and Space Innovations Limited (SIL) of Newbury, England, which included large exchanges of stock. Both are now "wholly owned subsidiaries" of SpaceDev.

From the SpaceDev website: "ISS personnel have performed engineering analysis, design, test support and field engineering on many complex systems including tactical aircraft, space vehicles, launch vehicles, launch facilities and rolling umbilical towers. Our capabilities can be applied to feasibility studies, cost price analyses, trade studies, design, engineering analyses, design test, acceptance test and integration support."

From a press release: "SIL is a space engineering company that specializes in the design and manufacture of satellite products, subsystems and complete small satellites, which generally weigh between 50 and 500 kilograms. This type of Earth orbiting satellite is often used for scientific and remote sensing applications. They could also form the basis of satellites for constellations similar to Teledesic, Globelstar and Iridium." SIL brought in 40 employees, mostly engineers.

SpaceDev has also started a Hybrid Rocket Division "to capture the small launch vehicle market".

One thing I have found seriously disconcerting is that Jim has sometimes backtracked and even denied plans to mine asteroidal resources. For example, Jim has occasionally has said outright both verbally and on his internet e-mail mass mailing that SpaceDev specifically has no interest mining an asteroid -- despite what has been inferred by people at other times, to say the least. The SpaceDev website has varied between extremes regarding its discussion of mining asteroids, with a brief period when I couldn't find much mention of asteroid mining and resources utilization, which occurred at around the same time Jim started denying any such plans. (This happened within the first year of public stock trading.) As of the time of this writing, a section of the web again briefly mentions an interest in investigating the field of mining and developing asteroidal resources. There are also still journalistic articles being published in major newspapers and magazines in the mass media regarding asteroid mining and SpaceDev, which serve as free marketing on a very large scale for SpaceDev, and should be responsible for a significant part of the demand and value of SpaceDev's stock. So why doesn't SpaceDev market asteroidal resources utilization in a stronger way?

Jim got his NEAP project certified for a kind of NASA funding (Discovery Program). This could bring in NASA money, but it also means that NEAP is no longer a purely private sector project, in my opinion. In fact, SpaceDev is starting to look a little like another NASA beltway bandit. It would be foolish to turn down any market, including the government market, but the lack of successful marketing to the purely private sector has been disappointing to me. It also raises the question on how much of the asteroid data can be sold and how much will be public domain.

Jim now often talks seriously about general NASA contracting, e.g., selling probes to NASA to go to other planets (of course, unattractive to commercial interests) based on his NEAP business model, as if that will be a main focus of SpaceDev.

Jim's response to the above is that "it is off on the wrong track. We are interested in helping NASA with their Mars program, but only if we can sell them a ride for microprobes, communications services, or a whole mission, and only on the basis of a commercial sale, never as a bid on a government RFP or AO (Announcement of Opportunity)." However, others allege that selling products and services to NASA is really just a different way to get government funding than the usual RFP or AO. It has also been noted that NEAP is counting on free access to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) for telemetry, while expecting NASA to pay for the scientific data NEAP collects. (Given the congestion of the DSN, isn't it about time that someone in the private sector set up a separate DSN and sold that service?)

Jim is not from the "space establishment" but is a relative newcomer to this field. It is my perception that as a newcomer he has become too awed and enamored of many of the scientists and technocrats in this field, many of whom are more interested in the science of Mars, Jupiter and other things than mining asteroids. In fact, some are even outright against asteroid mining, such as leading asteroid searcher Dr. Eleanor Helin (who Jim was socializing with at the Space '98 conference), who Boston Globe journalist David L. Chandler said "bristled at Benson's plans to declare ownership of an asteroid". As Helin is quoted regarding asteroid mining: "My visceral reaction was `heavens forbid, not on your life'", and that regarding her scientific colleagues, "there would be some hesitation if somebody was not only going out and landing on your asteroidal body, but exploiting it - bringing it around [closer to Earth] or munching it up on the spot." The asteroid SpaceDev is going to land on and stake a claim to, 1982 DB Nereus, was discovered by Helin. After this event, Jim has reiterated that he has absolutely no flexibility on his insistence of private ownership of near Earth asteroids and the right to commercially utilize their resources. (It's notable that I set up Chandler to interview Benson regarding asteroid mining as a good story at that conference.)

After Chandler wrote his article, Benson sent around a mass e-mailing stating ”This article is good because it explains our rationale for NOT being interested in asteroid mining and explains why we are intending to fly a science missions." One could interpret that different ways, for example that SpaceDev has put those ideas aside and is now pursuing more immediate payback items, possibly considering asteroid mining again in the future, but my concern is that Benson and his associates will shelf interest in asteroid mining indefinitely in view of other profitable government-contracting space interests. In any case, as always, if you want asteroid mining to happen, then you'd better set up your own company to do it, and not depend on SpaceDev for that. If you invest in SpaceDev in the near-term, you may help the cause of asteroid mining, but may not be investing in a company that will actually go out and do the asteroid mining. But don't listen to me, ask Jim Benson and his company!

As an analogy, it is common for people new to PERMANENT who are also new to space to eventually become distracted by all the fascinating things about space and lose focus on lunar and asteroidal resources utilization. Indeed, it's common for people in the space field to get involved in lucrative non-space businesses on the side and stop doing all work in the space field.

In the beginning, people saw Jim Benson as a much needed businessman filling a vacuum in the space resources field dominated by scientists contracting to the government. If SpaceDev becomes a company selling probes and science data to NASA instead of using scientists to help in the lunar and asteroid mining business, then it will become a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Personally, I found Jim considerably different in face to face meetings than what I originally inferred via internet. I expected more of a cowboy businessman type, but found a diplomatic person instead. It was also interesting to find out that before he set up his beltway bandit computer business in the 1980s Jim had been a political activist working on a political campaign in the 1970s for a well known politician. I also found out from a chance encounter with another person that Jim was involved in small renewable energy projects as well around that time. Nice background. Both predated his years setting up his beltway bandit software company.

Jim does not present himself as any kind of great leader in space development, but more as a simple businessman trying to make a good profit in the space field. In personal conversations, Jim comes across as honest and open, careful to be clear and not mislead, and conservative.

It would be nice if SpaceDev ventured their profits into asteroid mining, but it is starting to appear that profits from NEAP and further efforts may go into other areas besides asteroid mining.

In any case, I think that SpaceDev is doing vital groundwork towards asteroid resources utilization (even if Jim Benson were to sell out completely, the worst case scenario) in the near term, as NEAP has taken on a life of its own and seems destined for history. Indeed, why not buy a few more copies of NEAP from SpaceDev and go to prospect more asteroids, staking a claim and prospecting yourself? Most of the cost is in designing and tooling up for the first probe, and extra probes don't cost nearly as much to manufacture.

Remember, Jim doesn't rank anywhere in the top 100,000 wealthy people in the world but is a modest millionaire with only one business to survive on at present. If Jim Benson can do it starting with just a little cash and lots of business skill, what can others do?

The SpaceDev website, where things have gone down in writing, usually implies a company interested in asteroid mining as a long-term goal, and as a company interested in working with other corporate entities to develop space ("SpaceDev").

The best thing to do is visit the SpaceDev website. You won't find many other companies on the web nearly as far along as SpaceDev in the field of space resources utilization, or which started off so well.

But before doing so, read the following message from early 1997 which Jim put out early in the development of SpaceDev and his announcement of NEAP:

"NEAP will be the first private spacecraft to leave earth orbit, the first private spacecraft to visit another planetary body, and the first private spacecraft to land on another planetary body. NEAP will carry sufficient instrumentation to size and categorize the asteroid, thereby allowing us to calculate a "street value" for it. After landing, we will "stake" any mining and patent claims we believe to be possible, and then will simply declare ownership of the trillion dollar asset. This will help draw attention to the need to establish private property rights in space. Nine sources of income from NEAP have been identified, two of which could each pay for the entire venture. The entire venture will be privately financed, with no government grant money of any kind (necessary to ensure a pure private claim of the asteroid and its resources)."

"... Overall venture cost estimates have declined from over $80 million to less than $40 million. It is expected that the cost will continue to decline, but less rapidly...

"The SpaceDev advisory board has grown to include a "Who's Who" list of eighteen scientists and engineers...

"Many people have said that NEAP will excite the public with its bold mission to another planetary body, making its claims, and showing the general public that they can be involved in space activities, NOW...

"I will find all possible ways to leverage NEAP into a position to help create cheap access to space, to help other entrepreneurial companies, and in general to rekindle the public interest and hope in going to space in their lifetimes...

"I am open to any suggestions you may have, on any aspect of this venture..."

If you are thinking of investing in SpaceDev, then I recommend you first send Jim an e-mail message to find out his latest plans before you invest. Many people have visited SpaceDev upon a PERMANENT referral.

An interesting thing I have in common with Jim Benson is that he, too, self-published books, in fact three of them, all during the 1970s when he was an environmental activist. The first sold almost 25,000, mostly from his suitcase as he traveled around the USA, giving speeches and doing political organizing.




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