Cheap day return into space

Want to be an astronaut? For £129,000, Manchester-based rocket enthusiast Steve Bennett is offering two members of the public the chance to fly into space aboard Thunderbird, the world’s first amateur space rocket. Launch date is September 2003. The 15m-long, 14-tonne rocket will propel the two astronauts and their pilot 100km into space and bring […]

Want to be an astronaut? For £129,000, Manchester-based rocket enthusiast Steve Bennett is offering two members of the public the chance to fly into space aboard Thunderbird, the world’s first amateur space rocket. Launch date is September 2003.

The 15m-long, 14-tonne rocket will propel the two astronauts and their pilot 100km into space and bring them back to earth by parachute.

The 15-minute round trip will give the astronauts three or four minutes of weightlessness and the chance to see the earth’s curvature, the blackness of space and the stars.

Bennett built his first rocket at the age of 13. Last month he successfully launched the 7m-long Starchaser Discovery to a height of 6,000m from Morecambe Bay. He runs Starchaser Industries and is director of space technology at Salford University.

For the 36-year-old former toothpaste technician, Thunderbird is the culmination of his dream of becoming the first amateur to fly in space and taking the $10m (£6.6m) X-Prize for the first privately built reusable passenger carrying spaceship.

But Thunderbird is no Space Shuttle or Ariane 5. It will use low-cost, off-the-shelf technology and equipment to keep the launch cost down to less than £2.5m. Bennett hopes most of this will be covered by sponsorship.

For instance, last month, uses off-the-shelf radio modems to relay telemetry data. And its parachute is deployed using a height sensor usually found in hobby shops.

The body of the Thunderbird single stage rocket will be made of high-temperature epoxy glass fibre with a capsule on top for the three astronauts. It may be powered by a new type of hybrid solid/liquid propellant motor.

Although Starchaser Discovery used a solid propellant originally developed for the Space Shuttle, it is expensive, says Bennett, and it is subject to explosives legislation and the motor cannot be stopped once fired. So he is looking at a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine that would be cheaper and safer.

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