Spotlight: Space Saver


Stan Kent is a successful aerospace engineer who recently quit his job at Lockheed to devote full time to his personal goal of encouraging Americans to "get into" space. Over the last two years, in his spare time, he has raised almost $200,000 in contributions to fund research in space-related activities. He speaks regularly before school, civic, and technical groups about the economic promise of space development. He acts as a space broker, putting businesses interested in space exploitation in touch with those who can manage it. And he's starting up Astrospace, a profit-making research firm.

The most surprising thing about Kent is what he is not. He is no one's stereotypical vision of a research scientist. The 26-year-old English expatriate often looks, from his hair and dress, like a new wave rock star. Standing over a synthesizer in the back room of his offices in San Jose, California, Kent plays with the chords and the programmable harmonies that he uses to provide sound for the presentations that he and his group of volunteers give all over the country. The room is filled with electronic paraphernalia and computer hardware. Kent looks as happy as a kid playing video games, but he is working toward more than a mere arcade simulation of space travel.

The name on the office door is Delta Vee, taken from the mathematical symbol for a change in velocity. Kent and those who have rallied to his call are dedicated to changing the pace of the human progression into space. "Space is too important to be left to the government," he told REASON. "It's really a question of marketing. Last year, $2.1 billion in quarters was spent on space-related video games, which is public participation. That figure shows that the people behind the space program have got to wise up."

Stan Kent was born and raised in "the working-class slums" of London. "There was no future," he says. "You would get out of school when you were 15 and go to work in the coal mines or the steel mills and that was it. That's what kids do for the rest of their lives, and when they retire the government puts them on the dole and they live happily ever after."

About the same time Kent started thinking that "there had to be something better," the US government was sending the Apollo rocket to the moon. "It said to me," Kent recalls, "'Boy, there's a country on this planet that wants to do something.'"

He wrote a letter to NASA and was astounded when they sent him information about how to get into space sciences. Though no one else in his family ever considered higher education, Kent won scholarships to American universities and has not been back to England since. While earning his masters degree at Stanford University, he developed a method for converting a discarded fuel tank into a freight delivery system for goods manufactured in space. At the International Astronautical Federation Congress at Dubrovnik in 1978, his work was chosen as the most outstanding student paper in the world, winning him a gold two-ounce Hermann Oberth medal.

Kent started Delta Vee, the nonprofit corporation that has raised $200,000 so far, when the government cut funding for receiving and processing data coming in from the Viking lander on Mars. With an initial free ad in Omni magazine, Kent started raising money with his plea to "Feed a Starving Robot." Thirty percent of Delta Vee's funds now comes from the sale of T-shirts and trivia related to space.

But it proved almost impossible to give the money to the Viking project. NASA officials told Kent that the law prohibits donations to government agencies for specific purposes. But Kent made history with the help of a group of NASA engineers who zeroed in on an obscure civil code allowing businesses to hire the government to perform services, as when AT&T pays NASA to launch a communications satellite. So Delta Vee has "hired" NASA to collect and analyze the Viking data. "That just goes to show you," Kent beams, "that if you are bloody-minded persistent, you can even change the US government."

Delta Vee is now trying to raise funds to contribute toward the exploration of Halley's comet, due in 1986, an effort that the government has nixed. Though Kent's stated goal is to free the space program from dependence on government money, one does have to wonder whether the purpose of the Halley's Comet Fund is to help pay for the $250,000 cost of a probe into the comet or to shame the government into funding the project. If the US government does not send its own mission, the money will presumably go toward the European effort.

Though Kent is generally supportive of the free market, he hasn't brought himself to oppose the spending of tax monies on space exploration. The space program, he says in his defense, is the only government program that ever yielded a positive return to the American public.

The young engineer worries that there is no more "west" where freedom and initiative can flourish. "I'm seeing things happen in the United States that were happening in England 15 years ago, and I'm afraid that this country could end up like so many other European countries, run by unions and bureaucrats." He doesn't regret leaving England and notices that many of Great Britain's most innovative, individualistic minds are coming to America. He says, "If I thought the English wanted to change, I would have stayed." And if America becomes more like England? "I've gone as west as I can go. Now there's only one way left," he says, pointing to the sky.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.