THE citizens of Bristol might not have been aware, but last week on the green fields of their common ground near the university, a rocket launch was taking place. Admittedly, it wasn't quite Apollo 13.

'I do one of these every Wednesday afternoon with my friends from AstroSoc,' said James Macfarlane, a first-year electrical engineering student at Bath University, as he pressed the button to ignite the heaven-borne cardboard body, 'except in exam week.'

The rocket, which looked like a scarlet washing-up liquid bottle, shot 200 feet into the air. 'Now who's going to peg across and bring it back?' James asked.

James Macfarlane is what you might call something of a bright spark. He puts it down to parental guidance.

'Apparently, I used to play with a bag of plugs and sockets when I was a baby,' he revealed. 'And I was always messing about with light bulbs.' His electrical engineering career took off at the age of 10, when he was constructing radios in the garage, and steadily moved upwards, via calculators, to the giddy heights of building in his bedroom a computer designed to function inside a rocket.

'Let me show you a photo of my computer,' he said eagerly. 'I designed it in my own lab.' He brandished a Polaroid snap showing a mass of wires poking out of a board. 'That's the data circuit board, you see.'

James and his fellow student Harvey West are members of UK Students for the Exploration and Discovery of Space, or Ukseds. Together with students from Bristol, Kent and Cambridge universities, James and Harvey are taking part in the World Wide Launching Campaign, which is to be held in France next weekend, and have entered their own rocket for the contest. The project has taken a whole year to prepare.

Spurred on by a combination of engineering skills, luck, and enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism, the group managed to find the necessary funding and donations of parts to build their rocket, Aspire, whose launch, it is hoped, will blast James's cardboard rockets into a cocked hat. The students hope Aspire's ability to withstand 5kg of nitroglycerine exploding under its finned bottom will help it to soar off the launching pad at Mourmelon, in eastern France, to reach a height of 6km.

'It really is an exercise in project management,' said Roger Moses, senior lecturer in engineering at Bristol University. 'I mean, just getting students to do something at all is an achievement in itself.'

'I saw a notice up in the Union saying, 'Get Involved with a Rocket', and so I thought, yeah, right, all right, so I joined AstroSoc,' said Harvey.

He went on to explain one of the finer points of the project: 'Our computer inside the rocket will open the parachutes to bring it back.' Harvey had graphic descriptions of what would happen if the Bath computer failed to operate and the parachutes remained inside. 'It's my biggest nightmare. It will be like Lockerbie,' he said, tending towards unfortunate overstatement. 'I mean, there will be a huge hole in the ground. When the rocket goes supersonic, that's when I will start praying for our computer to work.'

'Supersonic] That's not a word you often hear, is it?' said James, excitedly. 'Just think of all the hot air rushing past it.'

James admitted that one of the main reasons he applied to Bath University was so that he could continue to live at home and thus use his own electronics lab in his bedroom.

Girls seem to take a back seat in this world of wind tunnels and countdowns. 'Yes, well, there's Julie in our AstroSoc, but that's about it,' said James, vaguely.

A working knowledge of televised science fiction seems to be vital. 'I'm quite into Thunderbirds', said James. 'But actually the old cartoon G Force is my favourite. Transmute]' he shouted at Aspire's project leader, James Murray, who is known as Mission Control. He responded with a G Force hand signal, before confiding that his favourite was Star Trek.

'I'd love to see their Engine Room Manual,' he sighed. 'You know, they don't just dump their ideas on the programmes. They really think them out properly. That's why it's so brilliant.'

Traffic permitting, James, James, Harvey and their rocket will be travelling to France on Sunday in a borrowed Transit van, to compete with about 30 other European student groups. The launch will clearly be a rather emotional affair.

'How will I feel when it goes off?' said Mission Control. 'Depressed.'

'I'll be relieved, particularly if the parachutes open,' said Harvey.

'I'll be very excited, and probably nervous. But I'll be sad in a way,' said James Macfarlane, no doubt envisaging a gloomy return to life as a cardboard rocket launcher. 'The project's finished and there won't be any more meetings or work on it. I'd love to do another one next year.'

(Photograph omitted)