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The space graduates aiming for the stars

RYAN SOUTHALL decided he wanted to be an astronaut after watching Star Trek and reading science fiction stories by Arthur C Clarke. 'Everyone thinks we're all really eccentric and spoddy,' he said, scratching his knee through the hole in his grungy jeans. Spoddy is his word for - well, for anyone interested in physics.

Ryan is on Britain's first space-dedicated degree course, which was set up three years ago at Leicester University by Professor Ken Pounds, Britain's first professor of space physics. Last month it produced its first graduates.

Ryan will sit his finals next year. As some arts students are turning reluctantly to science, people such as Ryan him are flocking to Leicester from choice. 'I've always been excited by the prospect of space travel and here I'm with like- minded people,' he said. 'They don't think it's ludicrous to want to be an astronaut. They know it's perfectly possible.'

The 34 who graduated last month each left with a core physics degree enhanced by study of dynamics, means of propulsion, orbits, trajectories, launchers, even the systems required for supporting life in space. Nasa's little project with the Observer, for example, would be child's play for them.

Two of the 34 were set the problem of sending an unmanned starship to Barnard's star, 4.9 million light years away - a 400-year journey. They needed to apply theoretical means of propulsion and opted for reverse-field plasma- confined rockets, technology using nuclear fusion that is at least 50 years away. It would require a two-stage rocket; one to accelerate steadily over 200 years, the other to decelerate the craft for another 200.

Professor Pounds believes they and their fellow students will take the next leap forward in space exploration: 'Nasa is a bit long in the tooth now, it needs a fresh injection of blood and ideas.'

He has been at Leicester University since 1960 when he was asked to set up a course in X-ray astronomy. At least 10 of his students from those years are now working for Nasa.

About half the students on the space course say they chose it because it would enhance their chances of becoming an astronaut. Steve Willis, 22, has already landed a job testing satellite systems for British Aerospace.

Britain's space cadets have time on their side. Nearly all are in their early twenties, and, Professor Pounds points out, the average age of Nasa's astronauts to date is about 45.