SIGNATURE ACHIEVEMENT James Benson puts his mark on one of the motors his company built for SpaceShipOne.
In 1955, a 10-year-old James Benson joined the Science Fiction Book Club and began devouring works by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Forty-two years later, he founded SpaceDev, a developer of low-cost rocket technology and small satellites. Benson's dream was to build a self-sustaining space economy in which humans pursuing profit among the stars would open the door to wider exploration. He still had his book-club membership card when he died of a brain tumor on October 10 at 63.
Benson didn't seem destined for a life among rocket scientists. An undistinguished student, he worked at a gas station in his native Kansas City, Missouri, after high school and taught himself electronics through a correspondence course. When he finally made it to the University of Missouri, he majored in geology, because it required the fewest credits to graduate.
After college, Benson joined the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, where he was an early proponent of solar power and contributed to Jimmy Carter's energy plan. In 1983, he co-founded Compusearch, which produced software to help government procurement officials comply with an expanding thicket of regulations. "Government agencies didn't all have computers yet, so he would load a big heavy monitor and a CPU onto a luggage wheelie and haul them around to demonstrate," says Susan Benson, James's wife and a partner in that company. Benson had no luck until a prospect explained that the $200 software seemed too inexpensive to do what it claimed. "He raised the price to $2,500, and [it] started to sell like hotcakes," says Peter DiGiammarino, Compusearch's current CEO.
In 1995, the Bensons sold Compusearch for $5 million and retired. Quickly bored, James rekindled his early love of space and, in 1997, incorporated SpaceDev in Poway, California. "Jim's original vision was to send a robotic spacecraft to the asteroids to mine them for water," says Dave McNeely, SpaceDev's manager of information systems. Other spacecraft would use that water -- which contains hydrogen -- to essentially gas up in deep space. The company designed the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector, which Benson also expected would mine orbiting objects for gold, copper, and other valuable minerals.
Unable to find commercial investors for the Prospector, Benson took on a NASA-funded project, launching a pioneering microsatellite called CHIPSat. Later triumphs included supplying the hybrid motors (they burned a combination of laughing gas and synthetic rubber) for SpaceShipOne, which made the first privately funded manned space flight.
Benson's 50-year-old book-club card carried a promise to submit the bearer's name to the first company offering commercial space travel. Tired of waiting, Benson stepped away from SpaceDev in 2006 to launch his own space tourism business. He died before Benson Space lifted off from the dining-room table.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan