Editorial: Pugnacious Pioneer


  Space News Business

Editorial: Pugnacious Pioneer

posted: 21 October 2008
04:29 pm ET

It is a near certainty that James W. Benson annoyed far more people in his professional life than he left with warm and fuzzy feelings. Mr. Benson, who died Oct. 10 at his home, in was a hard-driving businessman who pushed himself and everyone around him as hard as he could to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself.

He was a serial entrepreneur who successfully built companies in the computer and space industries. Using the money he made starting and later selling Compusearch and ImageFast Software Systems, he founded SpaceDev in 1997 with the goal of building a commercial spacecraft to explore a near Earth asteroid, conduct scientific experiments and claim it as private property.

After running afoul of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regarding what regulators viewed as his overly aggressive marketing of SpaceDev, Mr. Benson shifted his focus to building the NASA-funded Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer microsatellite for the
. The satellite was launched successfully in 2003 into low Earth orbit, where it remained in service until April 2008.

Even as he became a crusader for changing the way the government spends its money, Mr. Benson solidified SpaceDev’s place as a major player in what is known as the New Space industry, primarily through acquisitions. In 1998 SpaceDev purchased the patents and other technology of the defunct American Rocket Co. and used those assets to help build the propulsion system for the Ansari X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne. In 2005 SpaceDev acquired Starsys Research Corp., creating a company with more than 200 employees.

Mr. Benson could rub even his partners the wrong way – he once had to be physically separated from SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan at an industry conference in
when the two got into a shouting match over Mr. Benson’s role on SpaceShipOne. He was an unabashed self-promoter, but the kind who builds companies and gets things done. He changed not just the perception but the reality of what entrepreneurs and small companies could accomplish in space. He was a visionary, a true pioneer and one of those people you never forgot after you met him.