Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Manchester to the moon?: Britons back in the space race

Britain dropped out of the space race way before the finish line. Yet thanks to an unlikely group of amateur spacemen, we are closer than ever to charting a course to the stars. By Rob Sharp

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Back in the race: The British pioneers, where they exist, come from the private sector

Back in the race: The British pioneers, where they exist, come from the private sector

The British government bowed out of the space race three decades ago. Nowadays, it is the nation's entrepreneurs, often working on a shoestring budget, who are striving to touch the stars. But their small-scale efforts are no less significant.

This pack of "back-shed" British celestial innovators is led by Steve Bennett from Manchester. In September next year, he is set to launch the biggest rocket ever flown in this country, the experiment being a waymark on the journey to realise his grand plan of putting tourists into space by 2013.

"It's living the dream," says Bennett, 44. "It's become an obsession and a passion for me. I now have a great team around me, all of whom buy into it, to help me realise my ambitions. We all want to put Britain back into space."

This country needs people like him. While the Government, through the British National Space Centre (BNSC), part of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, spends about £200m annually on "space" in all its forms – from telescope technology to launching satellites – about 67 per cent of this goes to the European Space Agency (ESA), an intergovernmental organisation of some 17 nations. While some of this ESA money is diverted back to the UK through job provision on specific projects, our aspirations are severely lacking, because no official government initiatives to put people into space exist. So people such as Bennett – whose company, unlike a similar effort by Virgin founder Richard Branson, is based in the UK – are flying Britain's flag for exploration.

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, one of the country's leading space experts, says: "Exploration for the sake of exploration, science for the sake of science, is very thin on the ground as far as the Government is concerned. The UK takes the position that we are a small country and sending men into space is not the kind of thing we can make a significant impact on. What we tend to do with our limited resources is provide some of the back up and infrastructure, which then allows the richer nations to do the fancy bits. This includes providing satellites to help missions to Mars."

The British pioneers, where they exist, come from the private sector. Bennett, who has no formal scientific training, is launching his 18-metre rocket to test a safety system. If lift-off proves successful, it will inform the design of a bigger rocket that will carry customers into space. Two people have already signed up – to the tune of £500,000 – and Bennett says his aim, through his company Starchaser Industries, is to sell flights where passengers will spend 20 minutes in the air and experience three to four minutes of weightlessness.

"I am saying to people that it could be three years, it could be 10. But as far as the people already signed up are concerned, they said they didn't mind – as long as I travel with them," he explains. The rocket's travelling speed will be 3,500 miles per hour.

Bennett decided to pursue his dream of building rockets in 1992, when he was working as an underpaid lab technician. "I said to the missus that I am going to give up the day job, and really push these rockets," he says. "And she asked me what I wanted to achieve. I said I wanted to send a big rocket into space and that, one day, I wanted to fly in one of these rockets. She was very supportive and has helped me with the project ever since."

He proceeded to build rocket after rocket, becoming increasingly ambitious with each one. In 1996, he was invited to become the head of Salford University's Space Technology Laboratory, delivering lectures on space science.

He won sponsorship from various sources – including Tate & Lyle, the sugar company (one of his ideas has been to convert sugar into a fuel) – and was awarded a £120,000 ESA contract to investigate the feasibility of a reusable launch vehicle last year.

Bennett's efforts are much needed, according to Sir Martin. The professor's own company, Surrey Satellite Technology, was started on a shoestring in 1979, and will launch a series of satellites this month to collect data on everything from illegal oil dumping, to natural disasters and the locations of possible mineral deposits. Sir Martin claims that his and Bennett's efforts, even if they do not generate manned missions, produce important research results.

"I am aware of Steve Bennett's programme, which is looking for a way to reduce the cost of going to space, and I am glad he's doing it," he says. "To take a couple of people up to space like a firework is difficult, but practical for a modest attempt. It is always good to see people solve problems a different way, though. While he is a long way away from making a major contribution to international space travel, I think it's very good that the UK has people like him who are trying to challenge the way things are being done."

He describes the parallel between their two situations. "It was lack of money, trying to do it on the proverbial shoestring, which prompted me to go into the private sector and leave academia behind." Sir Martin was one of the pioneers of microcomputer technology, now found in every mobile phone around the globe. He pursued research in this area, simply, he claims, because such smaller technology was cheaper to build.

Sir Martin says Britain has a long history of innovators. "I think this is something the UK is good at," he continues. "Just look at the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was a genius and an entrepreneur. And then there was Barnes Wallis, developer of the 'Bouncing Bomb', used in the famous 1943 Dambusters raid. It is all about being innovative in your thinking. There are any number of these types of thinker who have stepped out of the box and taken non-classical approaches to science. It's the so-called 'back-shed' approach. Many of the world's best innovations started with individuals pursuing technologies with a passion. They just want to do it and don't let lack of money get in their way."

With such tales of ingenuity, there might yet be a role for Britain in the space race. In February, Science minister Ian Pearson said the international community was "on the cusp of a wave of new space exploration", and that Britain "needed to take full advantage of the opportunities".

"What we want to do is review the situation to make sure the UK does not get left behind," he said at the time. The rethink comes after China started investing more in its space programme and follows France's urging for an international manned mission to the Moon. Britain also signed up to a Global Space Exploration Strategy in May last year, alongside Nasa and 12 other agencies, and this is pushing for projects involving manned space exploration.

And now, the BNSC is starting to examine the scientific, technological and economic costs and benefits of manned missions. "In 1986 the UK chose not to participate in human space missions," a BNSC spokesperson said recently, before pointing out that it was a suitable time for Britain to review its stance on manned missions. For one thing, space exploration can yield important medical benefits.

In the meantime, the likes of Bennett remain at the vanguard. "I never had any money as a kid," he concludes. "It's been a long hard slog. We've not made money out of rockets, and it might be another five years before I manage to get anywhere. But I wouldn't change anything for the world."

Blast off: Brits in space
By Izabella Scott

*In the late 1950s, Britain's Blue Streak, a missile powered by a Rolls-Royce engine, was tested in Australia. The project was cancelled because of a lack of funds.

*The £5m rocket Black Knight broke the World Altitude Record in 1958 by reaching 564km above the Earth's surface.

*In 1963 the Space Research Management Unit – forerunner of the British National Space Centre (BNSC) – was established.

*In 1971, the government cancelled the Black Arrow project, although the R3 version of the rocket was launched after the announcement. It proved successful, putting the Prospero X-3 satellite into orbit, the only satellite to be launched by a British rocket. The R4 Black Arrow is on display in the Science Museum.

*Britain was now out of the space race, but continued to design spacecraft.

*In 1989, Helen Sharman was selected to become the first British astronaut, answering an advertisement before beginning training in the Soviet Union. She travelled to the Mir space station in May 1991.

*Britain continued its involvement in space mainly through the European Space Agency (ESA). 1990's Skylon project and Beagle-2 Mars mission, both funded through the ESA, used British brain power. However, in 2003 Beagle-2 disappeared six days before its scheduled entry into the atmosphere. Skylon, a spaceplane, is still in the design stage.

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