Dream Chaser's Countdown
"Dream Chaser's Countdown"
: Space entrepreneur Jim Benson says he's well into the first stage
: of the development effort for his Dream Chaser suborbital
: spaceship, with seasoned shuttle commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson
: signing on as Benson Space Co.'s chief operating officer and chief
: test pilot.
: Gibson is the latest former astronaut to make the leap over to
: private-sector spaceflight, joining the likes of Rick Searfoss
: (XCOR Aerospace's rocket test pilot), John Herrington (vice
: president and director of flight operations at Rocketplane
: Kistler), Jim Voss (at t/Space) and Wendy Lawrence (at Andrews
: Now he's looking forward to taking more spaceflights over the next
: few years than he ever had during his 17 years with NASA.
: "In all that time, they let me go to space just five times," he
: told me in his best aw-shucks tone during a phone interview
: today. "Gee, when this thing gets to be operational, I'll probably
: be able to go to space two or three times a day."
: NASA turned down SpaceDev's bid, prompting Benson to start up a
: new company - Benson Space - and do a deal with his old company to
: develop spaceships for suborbital passenger service.
: Benson Space announced today that it has worked out an agreement
: with SpaceDev for the first phase in the development of the Dream
: Chaser - a rocket-powered space plane that would launch vertically
: and land horizontally.
: Dream Chaser's design is based on the HL-20 vehicle that NASA
: tested back in the 1980s. Because SpaceDev and its partners will
: be using a proven spacecraft design as well as an upgraded version
: of the hybrid rocket engines that powered SpaceShipOne to the edge
: of space two years ago, it shouldn't take all that long to turn
: the Dream Chaser into reality, Benson said.
: "The matter for us is spaceship fabrication, rocket motor
: fabrication and integration. So I think we will have many fewer
: stumbling blocks than other people have who are starting from
: The current agreement calls for a critical design review and a
: go/no-go decision on moving forward by the end of March. The
: second phase - which is still under discussion - would involve
: fabrication of a prototype Dream Chaser. Glide testing would begin
: next September, with the first powered flight in November. The
: third phase would call for building one to three Dream Chasers
: that could be used for suborbital space tours by the end of 2008.
: That schedule could slip, but so far the plan is proceeding ...
: well, according to plan, Benson said.
: A lot of space ventures falter on the financial hurdles rather than
: the technical hurdles: When Benson announced his new company back
: in September, he said he quickly completed an initial round of
: financing, and today he told me that he's in the midst of a second
: round - with a fund-raising trip to Europe and the Middle East
: planned early next year.
: He declined to discuss the financial terms of the Phase 1
: agreement with SpaceDev - an agreement in which SpaceDev is the
: supplier and Benson Space is the customer. But he repeated his
: view that the total development effort would cost $50 million.
: Benson sees at least three avenues to profit:
: - First, there's the space tourism market - which has also brought
: XCOR, Rocketplane Kistler, PlanetSpace, Blue Origin and the
: perceived front-runner, Virgin Galactic, into the commercial space
: race. "I still think that we're at least a year ahead of the
: competition," Benson said - which assumes that the other
: competitors won't be spaceflight-worthy until around 2010.
: - Second, Benson says it's possible that one of the COTS
: contractors - SpaceX or Rocketplane Kistler - will eventually bow
: out of the program, giving Benson Space a second chance for NASA
: funding. In any case, Benson is gearing up to compete for COTS'
: second phase, which would set aside more money for orbital space
: station resupply. This scenario would call for the Dream Chaser to
: go orbital - an option that has always been in the back of
: Benson's mind.
: - The third avenue foresees turning the Dream Chaser into an
: orbital space delivery system, capable of servicing Bigelow
: Aerospace's private-enterprise space modules. If no government
: money is spent on developing the Dream Chaser, "that would qualify
: us for the $50 million Bigelow orbital prize," Benson said.
: For Gibson, the key is developing a safe and reliable spaceship
: that's capable of frequent flights. Benson Space has specified that
: the Dream Chaser should be capable to making four suborbital
: spaceflights in 12 hours.
: "The ultimate hope is that if you fly these things enough, you
: launch these things enough that you get the price down to
: thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands of
: dollars," Gibson explained. "Even if all you do is get it down to
: $50,000 a ticket, you certainly will have a big market."
: Along the way, Gibson hopes the Dream Chaser might just show NASA
: that there's still a place for the winged, reusable planes most
: people think of when they dream of spaceships.
: "NASA is going back to capsules and parachutes, and - how do I say
: this without saying it? - in some ways, that's going back
: 30 years," he said.
Mark Reiff <markreiff@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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