James Benson; Inventor Led Computer, Space Firms

James W. Benson founded Compusearch and SpaceDev.
James W. Benson founded Compusearch and SpaceDev. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

James W. Benson, 63, a serial entrepreneur who invented one of the first full-text computer index and search systems that allowed people to search more easily through federal acquisitions regulations, died of a brain tumor Oct. 10 at his home in Poway, Calif.

Mr. Benson started Compusearch and ImageFast Software Systems, both of McLean, in the 1980s. He turned from computers to space in the 1990s, founding the California firm SpaceDev, which helped build the hybrid rocket engine that launched the world's first privately built manned spaceship into suborbital space.

The spaceship, built by aerospace innovator Burt Rutan, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

"Our motor performed flawlessly during that flight," Mr. Benson proudly told at the time.

Since the age of 10, Mr. Benson carried a membership card for the Junior Space Cadets from the Science Fiction Book Club in his wallet. But the Kansas City, Mo., native had a college degree in the earthbound science of geology, not aerospace engineering, from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

He began teaching himself about computers and moved to the Washington area in 1973 as vice president of information technology for a now-defunct mortgage company.

He soon connected with a group working on solar energy, whose work resulted in the Wolf Creek Statement, a document that later helped shape President Jimmy Carter's energy plan.

Mr. Benson joined the federal government during the Carter administration, working in the solar division of the Energy Research Development Administration as a liaison to local and state governments. He left the agency when it became part of the Energy Department in 1977 and wrote several books for the Fairfax-based Institute for Ecological Policies.

With his wife, Susan, Mr. Benson founded Compusearch Software Systems in McLean in 1984. There he developed algorithms and applications to create full-text indexes of government procurement regulations, which could also be searched.

Mr. Benson also started ImageFast Software Systems in 1989, and it later merged with Compusearch. He sold the firm in 1995 and moved to California several years later.

He started SpaceDev in 1997 and was chief executive of the firm until 2005 and board chairman until 2006. He remained on the board until his death.

Mr. Benson also founded the nonprofit Space Development Institute and introduced the $5,000 Benson Prize for Amateur Discovery of Near Earth Objects, awarded through the American Astronomical Society. He was vice chair and private-sector representative of NASA's National Space Grant Review Panel and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers' subcommittee on near-earth object impact prevention and mitigation.

Mr. Benson always ended his talks with the exhortation "Onward and upward," said his wife of 45 years, Susan C. Benson. She said that he was cremated and that she plans to launch his remains into space, a venue he always wanted to explore.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, James W. Benson Jr. of Pittsfield, Mass., Tracy Benson of Falls Church and Nancy Benson of Fairfax; his mother, Lynette Maxine Benson of Merida, Mexico; a brother; and four grandchildren.

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