Wales in space? Mission control based in a pub? And it's no joke

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The Independent Online
The Bell pub in the heart of the Powys farming community serves as mission control for the first attempt to put a Welsh rocket in space. But, as Ian Burrell reports, the project is entirely serious.

Max Boyce, the Welsh comedian, once included in his routine a fanciful sketch about the principality's attempts to put men on the moon. Yes, the Welsh aeronauts concluded, it was made of cheese, and yes, it tasted of Caerphilly.

Plans by Newtown (population 11,000), in the hills of Mid-Wales, to style itself as a rival to Houston, Texas, as a centre for launching rockets, might also seem like a joke.

But the team members who style themselves Casa (Cymru Aeronautics and Space Administration), believe they are on the verge of creating history.

No amateur rocket launcher has succeeded in sending a projectile into space, which under the European definition is 100km into the air.

In January, the 15-strong Welsh team will carry out its first test-launches on a 45ft long rocket powered by a mixture of polybutadiene and liquid oxygen. If they are successful, Casa will aim to put its "Dragonfire" rocket into space in the spring, as soon as weather conditions are favourable.

The Bell's landlord, Peter Burt, has been overseeing meetings of the space committee. Mr Burt is a space fanatic, having decorated his hostelry with the prototypes of his earlier, less ambitious, rocket launches. His best effort was a missile with a fibre-glass nose cone which attained 1,500ft in 1995 before descending by parachute.

From behind the bar, Mr Burt serves pints of a new real ale, named Dragonfire, which is brewed locally and helps to raise funds for the space programme. It also fuels the debate among members of the space committee, which includes an industrial chemist, a computer wizard, a trajectory specialist and a member of parliament. Lembit Opik, the local Liberal Democrat MP, is another space enthusiast, whose conversations with the publican while canvassing in the area a year ago sowed the seeds for the Dragonfire project.

Mr Opik said: "Outsiders laugh but ... [local] people take this project very seriously."

The MP moved to reassure people who might be concerned at the safety risks if the launch went wrong. "It's propelled using a relatively safe material which only burns in a stream of high-pressure oxygen, which means there is no risk of it exploding," he said. "If it falls ... the biggest danger is that you get bashed on the head." For which reason, the committee has lined up a remote site at Plynlymon, the second highest peak in Wales.

The team is trying to raise pounds 250,000 from Welsh companies to finance the remainder of the project. A Dragonfire website is set to attract further commercial interest.

"People need to be sure that this is a serious project before they start investing money," he said. "What this venture is about is promoting scientific education in Wales."

Welsh schools have been invited to submit ideas for scientific experiments which can be carried out while the rocket is in space. Firms have already promised to supply diggers, generators and the scaffolding for the launch tower.

Mr Burt said: "We intend to control the rocket on its journey back and return it to its original launch site which is something that not even Nasa has been able to achieve."