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Calling All Space Cadets

If you're a space buff with a few million dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you might want to check out an unprecedented auction on eBay (EBAY). SpaceDev Inc. is offering to build and launch your own low-orbit satellite for a buy-it-now bid of $9.5 million. That would get you exclusive use of a satellite similar to the one that SpaceDev built for scientists at the University of California at Berkeley with NASA funding. It has been in orbit since January.

So far, no valid bidders. The only offer -- $250,000 -- falls way short of the reserve price. But you'd better hurry: The current auction will end at on Nov. 20 at 8:15 p.m. Pacific time. Don't sweat it too much, though. Another auction will start right after that -- and perhaps another a week later. SpaceDev hopes to sell two or three satellites before Christmas.

Here's the cool part: If you're the lucky winner, you can control your bird from home, via the Internet. You can also rent temporary control to others if you want to try to recover some of the cost, and SpaceDev will help with the time-share marketing. Both ideas, however, seem to fall into the if-you-have-to-ask-the-price, you-can't-afford-it category.

PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. Perhaps more realistic is ego appeal: Maybe you'll appear in a TV documentary chronicling the first private-person satellite mission, from design and assembly of the spacecraft -- with your participation -- to its firey reentry into the atmosphere after circling the globe for a year or so. Selling pictures of the earth taken from space could be another potential payback.

"We've got to move space out of the government sector. That's how space will flourish as a business," declares SpaceDev CEO James Benson. He founded the Poway (Calif.) company in 1997, determined to prove that private enterprise could find ways of building small sats cheaper than the usual tab, which now runs around $25 million, not including launch.

SpaceDev has launched only one bird to date, but Benson's ambitions won't be satisfied by any number of satellites. He wants to see people soaring beyond the atmosphere as well. "Cheap access to space will create a multibillion-dollar market in tourism alone," he says, citing various studies by NASA, Japan's National Space Development Agency, and pro-space outfits such as Space Access Society.

Tourists? The first wave would no doubt come from the ranks of today's adventure-tour clients. A 1997 NASA-funded survey of wealthy Americans found that one-fifth would eagerly pay $100,000 for space jaunts like those made in 1961 by pioneers Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. A $15,000 ticket to space could soon pull in a million tourists a year, according to engineers at Aerospace Corp., an El Segundo (Calif.) nonprofit that supports Pentagon space programs.

WINNING ROCKET. Although Benson's previous experience was in the software industry, space technology has been his lifelong passion -- and the team he now leads is clearly turning heads. In December, 1999, Burt Rutan, president of Scaled Composites LLC and a designer famous for making dozens of innovative aircraft, called Benson to suggest that SpaceDev compete for the job of developing an engine for SpaceShipOne.

That's the craft Rutan has designed for the so-called X Prize competition. To win the $10 million X Prize, a privately funded spaceship capable of carrying three people must fly at least to the edge of space -- an altitude of 62 miles -- and then repeat the feat within two weeks. On Sept. 18, Rutan announced that SpaceDev's hybrid rocket had been picked to power SpaceShipOne.

A hybrid rocket burns a combination of both liquid and solid fuel. That's considered safer than the all-liquid-fuel approach that NASA uses since the possibility of a catastrophic explosion is remote. The solid-fuel segment can't combine fast enough with the liquid oxidizer component to trigger a big blast. In fact, Benson regularly digs into his briefcase to hand out coasters molded from the solid fuel, which is a man-made form of rubber. In the race to privatize space, he quips, "We're really burning rubber." By Otis Port in New York

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