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Vicious cat-fight breaks out at NASA over space race

Two ladies spar over journey to the Moon

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A most unusual cat-fight broke out last night at the NASA Ames center here, as two women battled to learn when they will be able to take cheap flights into space.

SpaceDev founder James Benson had plowed through the majority of his presentation on space tourism opportunities when the cackling broke out. "Will you sit down. I can't see the screen," barked one woman. "Well, I can't hear the lecture. We came hear to listen to Mr. Benson not to hear you gossip," replied an older Asian lady not much more than 5 feet tall. The squabble escalated from there with both sides agreeing that they despised each other's lack of social graces.

Eventually, the bitching match devolved into a playground-level spat with both of the ladies verging on yelling, "I know you are but what am I?" A dose of comic tension filled the NASA Ames conference room, and then the two ladies quieted down.

Is there a moral to be found from this incident, we wondered.

Yes, we think there is.

We hope that companies such as SpaceDev can deliver on what they promise because they're getting little old ladies awfully excited about the prospect of zooming off to the Moon in the near future.

"I believe the cost (for a suborbital trip) will be down to $50,000, maybe as low as $15,000, in seven to 10 years," Benson told the NASA crowd.

Of course, plugging low-cost space flights is SpaceDev's agenda. The company makes or has plans to make a wide variety of devices, ranging from cheap satellites to manned spacecraft.

SpaceDev fired up in 1997 with the singular goal of "making commercial space happen." The company is probably best known for making the hybrid rocket technology that carried SpaceShipOne into space for a victory in the $10m X-Prize contest. In addition to helping out commercial operations, SpaceDev also seeks work as a government contractor, making gear on the cheap for the Feds.

Benson insists that changes in the space industry mirror changes that took place in the computing industry in the past. Huge mainframe vendors once dominated the computing landscape, charging a premium for their gear. Then, the minicomputers and networks arrived and drove the cost of computing down.

The space field is still owned by mainframe vendor equivalents such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, according to Benson.

"The space industry is like the mainframe computer industry 20 years ago," he said. "It's dominated by giant companies that have a near monopoly hold on the industry. They are hooked on the narcotics of cost-plus-fixed fee . . . corporate welfare . . .and entitlement programs."

SpaceDev, along with a number of other companies, are out to break this "monopoly," but then you knew that already.

NASA's decision making in the next few years will be key to crushing the federal pork pattern. Benson didn't hold his tongue on this front, dissing NASA on its home turf.

"The space industry has been brought to its knees by a fear of failure," he said.

Benson portrayed a picture where new NASA administrator Michael Griffin was taken into dark rooms in Washington D.C. and told his place by delegates from Florida and Texas - two NASA strongholds.

"They want to keep those 10,000 jobs in their districts. They don't care if there is any progress. That is the state of space today. I don't think it's a very rosy picture."

Then, he added, "Boeing can't have a meeting for $30m, and NASA is not much better."

About twenty minutes later, however, Benson did the ass kissing required of a private company seeking its own federal handouts.

"Right now, NASA has a great opportunity because Mike Griffin has the right stuff, I believe, and enough wiggle room to make things happen," he said.

SpaceDev is one of six finalists bidding to win NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. NASA plans to hand out $500m to any number of companies that can design a vehicle capable of making runs to the International Space Station.

"That is exciting," Benson said. "That's the kind of thing that can let this administration and Griffin leave his mark."

Key to SpaceDev's space flight plans is its Dream Chaser craft, which is well worth a look.

Many doubts haunt the space tourism game, but we were impressed with SpaceDev's rather concrete plans for meeting tough objectives.

With a stock price hovering around $1.34, it would seem that investors aren't quite as convinced about the company's long-term prospects. But with a healthy balance sheet and the possibility of pork on the way, SpaceDev might just stick this out for the long haul.

What could be better than a hardcore cat-fight come 2016 to see which one of those ladies gets to rocket down to the Moon first? ®

Bootnote

There's some fascinating history here about the role that Ham radio operators played in making many of the first satellites. Radio buffs too drove the rise of electronics here in Silicon Valley until the chip heads took over.

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