It is rocket science

Nowadays, sponsorship, plenty of ambition, a few off-the-shelf components, and a bit of know-how is all you need to build a rocket.

While ‘the space race’ was once tied up with notions of nationalism and global domination, rocket science is no longer the exclusive domain of heavily funded government agencies.

Nowadays, sponsorship, plenty of ambition, a few off-the-shelf components, and a bit of know-how is all you need to build a rocket. Today’s space race will be won by whichever private company can put the first civilian in space.

Indeed, space tourism is expected to be big business, and to jump-start the industry, the Xprize has been set up.

With a $10 million jackpot up for grabs, 19 teams have already entered the competition. The winning Spacecraft must be privately financed and constructed, demonstrate the ability to fly 3 people into space (reaching an altitude of 100km) and it must be reusable, flying twice in a two-week period.

One of the favourites, with a track record of successful launches, is Starchaser Industries, a UK company set up by Steve Bennett (director of Salford University’s Space Technology Laboratory) in 1992

The most recent of these, Starchaser Discovery, was launched in Morecambe Bay on Thursday 6th of July. At 4,000 ft the rocket split into two halves; the top half firing its motors and reaching 12,000 ft. As well as being the largest civilian rocket ever built and flown in Europe, Starchaser claims that this is the world’s first re-usable two-stage rocket, since all other staged rockets are discarded after use.

The next phase is to send Bennett into space, and NOVA, scheduled for launch in September, is a single stage rocket designed to bridge the gap between Discovery and the competition entry, Thunderbird.

Thunderbird, which Bennett claims will cost less than competitors’ projects, is a single stage rocketship that will make use of off-the-shelf components.

Advanced composite materials with superior strength to weight ratios will be used in the airframe, and propulsion will be via a liquid oxygen/kerosene fed rocket system, with reaction control operations carried out using a series of small cold gas powered thrusters.

The stack will be composed of 2 units: a Command Module at the front of the rocket, and a booster consisting of propellant tanks, engines and landing gear.

The company has also joined forces with PTC, which, as well as creating a virtual reality launch and flight simulation of Thunderbird, is also providing Pro/DESKTOP.Four seats aboard Thunderbird have already been taken but two remain. The first ‘manned’ flight is scheduled for August 2003.

It’s too easy to dismiss this as crackpot, but the folks at Starchaser honestly believe that their success could be the catalyst for a successful new British industry. And who knows? NASA currently charges $1 million to put a 50kg satellite into low Earth orbit. By using ‘off the shelf’ components and cutting out unnecessary administration Starchaser reckons it could do the same job for less than $500k.