DSI astroid harvestor

When I heard that David Gump had left top Google Lunar X PRIZE contender Astrobotic, I was pretty sure he would pop up somewhere equally interesting. I wasn’t disappointed to learn that he had become the CEO of Deep Space Industries, or DSI. DSI is the second company in a year to announce its intention to mine asteroids, after Planetary Resources, the subject of my August 2012 cover story for Popular Mechanics.

As DSI co-founder Rick Tumlinson said during the press conference this week to announce the new venture, “One company may be a fluke. Two companies showing up, that’s the beginning of an industry.” You can read my full report on popularmechanics.com.

Both Gump and Tumlinson are true visionaries who have thus far lacked the kind of backing they need to give full flight to their ideas.

I first met Gump at the International Space Development Conference back in 2005. At a time when there was a lot more talk than action in the commercial space business, Gump and done the extraordinary: he had brought the only actual spaceship to the display floor.

Okay, so it was an engineering mockup, not a flight model. But it had novel microgravity hammock-style seating inside designed by former NASA astronaut Jim Voss and a group of engineering students for Gump’s company, Transformational Space Corporation, or t/Space.

t/Space engineers had also worked out a unique method for air-launching a spacecraft by means of a sort of trapeze that swung the rocket to a vertical launch position in midair after it was released from a carrier aircraft, giving vehicle a head start in the run to space (no pull-up maneuver required) and eliminating the possibility of the rocket striking the launch aircraft.

Gump and company built the full-scale spacecraft test article, conducted parachute drop tests, tested the air launch system with a small-scale test article, and had the novel, lightweight stowaway seating designed and built, all for a mere 6 million bucks from NASA, less than the cost of a typical paper study from one of the big established aerospace companies.

I thought that was pretty damn impressive, and so did the editors at Popular Science, who gave me the October 2005 cover story on t/Space and its plan to get NASA’s derailed manned space program back on track. (Incidentally, a framed blowup of that cover—featuring a rocket blasting off—currently graces my bathroom wall, appropriately placed to provide some inspirational viewing. How’s that for TMI!)

t/Space pointed NASA toward a new way of doing things in manned spaceflight: paying for performance milestones rather than the conventional cost-plus approach which pretty much resulted in a blank check for the big guys without getting a lot done.

t/Space didn’t get a contract to continue to the work, in large part because it didn’t have “skin in the game,” i.e., its own investment money to kick into continued development. That’s a shame because t/Space really helped get the ball rolling on what became NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program that has allowed other companies to begin flights to the International Space Station in the absence of the Shuttle.

Here’s hoping Gump’s new company gets the backing it needs to realize at least some of its bold objectives.