SAN JOSE, Calif. Michael Joyce's passion for space exploration has led him from a cottage business building sci-fi models to a real-life robotic mission to the moon.
"Growing up I wanted to be an astronaut," said Joyce, a former Air Force B-52 and B1 bomber pilot. "My Dad worked at McDonnell Douglas and would bring stuff home from the Mercury and Apollo projects, so that passion was always there."
About a decade ago Joyce and his son were doing a Web search looking for a model robot project and they saw it--the image of the portly character simply called "robot" from the vintage 1960's "Lost in Space" TV show."I thought it would be a fun project for my son and I to build one, and it turned into a business," Joyce said.
"The first one I made took about three to six months. I worked on it pretty hard all winter. It was a fun hobby on those long South Dakota winters," said Joyce who lives in Deadwood, near Mt. Rushmore.
Once Joyce had his own robot, his thoughts turned to the online community of others building their own replicas of the so-called B9 and selling parts to each other. He decided to organize a club for them. The B9 Robot Builder's Club now has about 500 members who pay $28 a year.
"They are typically male 45-65 years old, the kind of people who like model making and working with their hands," Joyce said. "It's a pretty difficult project to make one of these."
After forming the club, Joyce began tinkering with an idea for a company to make and sell B9s to sci-fi fans with less mechanical aptitude. He knew two companies had already tried and failed to start such businesses. One had even sold 80 robots on spec for $12,000 each before going bankrupt without delivering a single bot.
"There was a large community that felt wronged, and we had to overcome that," he said.
So about three years ago, Joyce launched an effort to make his hobby a business, securing licensing rights from the TV show's producer and designing the 3-D CAD files and packaging. "It's all CNC laser-cut aluminum, welded with high-quality materials, hand finished and assembled," said Joyce.
In two years, Joyce's B9 Creations has sold 50 robots for a hefty $24,000 each.
"They are basically very large toys or collectables for entertainment purposes," said Joyce. "The torso turns left and right and has neon flashing lights when it speaks some 500 phrases taken from the TV show.
"It's a very small, but interesting niche market," said Joyce. "The robot is very popular in Australia, I have sold some to users in Japan and the U.K. and one to the National Science Museum in Egypt. Most of the time we don't meet our customers, we just take the order."
One customer is responsible for giving Joyce a close encounter with real-life astronauts. The widow of Irwin Allen, the creator of "Lost in Space," bought one of the robots and donated it to Kennedy Space Center. The center invited Joyce and his family last year to tour the facilities and watch a shuttle launch.