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miles obrien

Space entrepreneur may inspire 'rocket boys' for a new millennium


March 1, 1999
Web posted at: 1:43 p.m. EST (1843 GMT)

LONDON (CNN) -- By now, you have probably heard the story of Homer Hickam Jr.

Born and raised in a tiny West Virginia coal town, a teen-aged Hickam looked to the night sky after the launch of Sputnik in October of 1957, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 184 pound satellite as it streaked by.

He never saw it, but like the rest of the world, he heard those strangely menacing beeps, and realized in an instant what it meant for the world and where he wanted to be in it. Homer Hickam knew he wanted to work for NASA and be one of Wernher von Braun's boys. He wanted to build rockets. And so he got to work.

Over the objection of his coal-mining father, but with some encouragement from an understanding mother and teacher, he and some friends began building model rockets -- with sometimes frightening, sometimes comical, every now and then, stunningly successful results.

Ultimately, it was Hickam's ticket out of Coalwood. He ended up working for NASA as an engineer -- his rocket projects growing to a size and complexity that he could not have imagined as he gazed into that October sky.

That, of course, is the title of the Hollywood version of Hickam's charming memoir "Rocket Boys." (In case you haven't noticed -- "October Sky" is an anagram of the book title). I haven't seen the movie yet, but started the book before I left for London, and have been savoring it during every free moment I get.

I was thinking about Hickam's book earlier this week when I visited a small space hardware manufacturer west of here (in Newbury) called Space Innovations Ltd.

SIL's 50 employees design small satellites (able to carry 100 to 600 pound payloads) as well as X- and S-band transmitters and receivers to keep those satellites in touch with their owners.

The owner of the company is an intriguing American entrepreneur by the name of Jim Benson. Producer Linda Saether and I are profiling him for an upcoming piece on "NewsStand/Fortune."

Benson's San Diego based company SpaceDev is the world's first commercial space exploration company. He's got some big plans for making money on the exploration and exploitation of space -- including sending a small satellite to a near-Earth asteroid in late 2000.

He is convinced he can turn a profit on this venture by selling rides for scientific instruments to a government, a company or a university. But what really caught my attention is what he'd like to do next.

When the science mission is complete, the SpaceDev Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) satellite will make a soft landing on the asteroid Nereus, laying the groundwork for Benson to stake his claim.

Benson eventually would like to mine Nereus for its resources. Can you guess what resource might be most precious on an asteroid? It's water. That's right, water. After all, remember what rocket fuel is: hydrogen and oxygen. H20 -- ice -- might prove, in space, all that glitters really isn't gold. Who knows? Jim Benson might one day become the John D. Rockefeller of the space revolution.

In fact, Jim Benson is certain there will be a revolution in space in the next decade. He compares it to the industry where he made his fortune: computers. The relentless miniaturization of electronics brought down mainframe giants like Sperry, Univac, Burroughs and Honeywell. Could small, inexpensive satellites do the same to the big aerospace contractors? Benson thinks so. And he is putting his money where his mouth is.

I was wrestling with these revelations when I met Stephen Gardner, one of SIL's young aerospace engineers. He looked up from the computer image of the tiny satellite he is helping design and he told me: "It's really come full circle. Right back to Sputnik-size spacecraft."

Sputnik-sized yes, but able to do so much more than beep. I wonder who now realizes, in an instant, what this means for the world. Will bright teen-agers one day long to be one of Jim Benson's boys?

Miles O'Brien's Downlinks column appears on Mondays.

Review: 'Rocket Boys'
February 18, 1999
A history of space stations
November 23, 1998
Ariane rocket blasts into space, launches two satellites
February 27, 1999
Review: 'October Sky' best offering of a still-young year
February 18, 1999

Space Innovations Space (SIL)
SpaceDev, Inc.
   •Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP)
   •History -Sputnik Vanguard
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