I’ve just heard the sad news that Jim Benson, founder of SpaceShipOne rocket contractor SpaceDev has left this world. He was 63 years old. From a SpaceDev announcement released today:

“SpaceDev Founder and Board Member James Benson, 63, died peacefully in his home. Benson was diagnosed in 2007 with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, the cause of his death early this morning.”

Jim was a passionate advocate for the commercialization of space and he started his company in Poway, California to help make it happen with affordable micro satellites built with off-the-shelf components and hybrid fueled rockets. SpaceDev won the competition to supply components for SpaceShipOne’s rocket motor. Just how much of the rocket SpaceDev contributed was a source of contention between Benson and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan that led to a falling out between the two.

Popular Science editor Eric Adams and I were struggling to get a good view of the final SpaceShipOne launch on October 4, 2004 when Jim grabbed the two of us and snuck us through a hole in the fence to allow us to escape from the media viewing section into the VIP section. I felt like a kid sneaking over the schoolyard fence after hours. Jim’s unquenchable boyish enthusiasm certainly contributed to that feeling.

A few months later, I drove out to Poway to meet Jim at his office and he gave me a tour of the shop where the fuel had been molded into SpaceShipOne’s rocket motor and he took me around the offices and satellite mission control center at SpaceDev. Back in Jim’s office, Jim proudly showed me his tattered Science Fiction Book Club membership card framed on his wall.

Jim had been inspired to get into space as a boy, and he never lost that sense of wonder and excitement for the final frontier, nor was he afraid to share that passion with anyone he met. He will be missed.