Open Eye: Now it's per Salford ad astra

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The Independent Online
Rocketeer and OU alumnus Steve Bennett clearly has the Right Stuff. As a nine-year-old Thunderbirds fan watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, Steve determined that he also wanted to "make it real".

When school friends were trying to sell frogs to the local scientific supplies company, Steve was asking for their catalogue. Using money saved from skipped lunches and a Saturday morning job, he bought "stuff with skulls and crossbones and hazard signs on the side". His parents were not enchanted.

Experimenting with a variety of chemicals and a sugar-based rocket propellant, Steve flew his first miniature missiles. With his local library lacking textbooks on rocket science, he began to teach himself the basics of aerodynamics through trial and error.

Steve spent his honeymoon at the unromantic destination of Cape Canaveral - "At least I came back with custom-made nose cones and timers, and made a lot of contacts."

Working as a lab technician on shiftwork at Colgate in Manchester, he used the night hours to his advantage and started tinkering with new rockets and "kept working until the men in suits told me to stop". This took three years.

Steve's rockets by now were ten feet tall and one came down without its parachute close to a butane tank. One went up to 17,000ft - and never came down. While looking for a safer launch site in Wales, he had a knock on his door and a visit from the local police, the Health and Safety Executive and a fire officer. Though sympathetic, they were uncomfortable with Steve's developing rocket propellant in his kitchen.

From that point Steve began to professionalise his activity, paving the way for other private enthusiasts in the UK. Importing key parts from the United States ensured that all the rocket ingredients were legally and safely produced with the correct certification.

Developing his career prospects through OU courses, Steve says he "wanted to use his time wisely but didn't know how much work it was!"

With sponsorship first from Colgate and then from Tate and Lyle he was now beginning to generate new coverage. His first major rocket, Starchaser, went up half a mile, and came down without a parachute, coming to a sticky end.

His next version flew four times successfully and now adorns a Manchester bar. Starchaser 2 was built at his home with bits up the stairs, in the cupboard and in the bathroom. "My two year old thought he was going to fly in it!" It was launched on a winter's day in Otterburn and flew to 2,000ft, floating down on a parachute.

Last March, Starchaser 3 was launched from Dartmoor. Unfortunately only one half of the rocket propellant worked successfully and, in front of the media, crashed spectacularly setting fire to half a square mile of moorland. Although the British love a spectacular failure, seven out of ten of Steve's rockets have flown successfully.

Now a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, Steve is building a serious reputation. When Salford University was devising a space technology strand to its undergraduate physics course, Steve was head-hunted to join the staff. He now runs its Space Technology Laboratory and works with third-year physics undergraduates on projects and teaches the Living in Space option. In his teaching he draws on material from his background in the Science Foundation course, Biology Form and Function, Science Matters and Organic Chemistry.

While re-building Starchaser 3 for a launch later this year, Steve is also developing a Millennium-funded project to take science to the community. This is a full-size nose cone which will be taken out to pubs, clubs and shopping centres to give people the sense of flying in space. With enthusiastic volunteers "paid in tea and digestive biscuits" the cone is now taking shape - complete with two fluffy dice in the front window.

But Steve has a greater vision. As a successor to Charles Lindbergh's prize-winning transatlantic flight, a foundation in St Louis, Missouri, is offering The X Prize - $10m to the first private operation to fly passengers beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The organisers are attempting to kick start tourism and recreational flights in space.

The rules state that the spacecraft must carry at least one person to a minimum altitude of 62 miles and be flown twice within a fortnight. The crew must return to the Earth's surface from both flights "in good health" and "the space vehicle must be substantially intact and reusable.' Can it be done? "I'm looking to do it by August 2003," says Steve with precision. "I'm more Walt Disney than Walter Mitty. The technology is already here.

"We have the knowledge of the aerodynamics of the upper atmosphere. I've got a vision and I'm a dreamer, but I intend to make this happen and make it practical."

Steve has created the Starchaser Foundation and is shortly to develop it into a limited company with shares available to the public.

With 26 people on the core team working for The X Prize and back-up from Salford Physics department, it is unlikely we will hear the call "Salford - we have a problem". Steve Bennett, may just be the one to do it.

Simon Newton

Further details from the Starchaser Foundation, PO Box 21, Dukinfield, Cheshire SK16 5FD.