Star potential

Starchaser Industries boss Steve Bennett is adamant he can fly three astronauts to the brink of space and back – only lack of funding stands in his way, he reckons. Rob Coppinger reports.

Steve Bennett has popped in and out of the media spotlight for the best part of a decade since emerging as the UK’s most notable manned space flight entrepreneur.

Bennett is chief executive of Starchaser Industries, the UK’s entry in the X-Prize, a global challenge offering $10m (£5.6m) to the first privately-funded team that can fly three astronauts to the brink of space twice within a fortnight.

Starchaser has been firing rockets over Morecambe Bay at regular intervals since 2000 as the race to claim the prize heats up.

Someone is expected to win the prize this year or next, and Bennett, who is also director of space technology at Salford University, is adamant his team should be taken seriously.’The only person who stands a chance of beating us is Rutan,’ said Bennett. ‘Rutan’ is Burt Rutan, an engineer bankrolled by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen whose company, Scaled Composites, has already achieved a notable first.

Its rocket-plane, called Spaceship One, achieved speeds in excess of Mach One on 17 December 2003, becoming the first private aircraft to do so – exactly 100 years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

During a second powered flight last month Spaceship One reached Mach 1.6.Lacking a billionaire benefactor of his own, and in the best tradition of the British underdog, Bennett is using every opportunity to keep the Starchaser show on the road – including taking it on the road.

‘One of the things we do is to link with education. We get the early prototype Nova rocket out to schools. It’s the biggest rocket ever launched from the UK mainland. We charge for that, and the pupils are inspired and the teachers like it. I think we’ve got 52 bookings already this year.’

Starchaser is raising its game on fund raising. Bennett has employed a marketing and PR company to seek sponsorship, is selling seats on the flight and even plans to float Starchaser Industries on the stock market.

‘We’re going to be selling shares in the company to the public, we’re going to turn it into a plc.’

Through initiatives such as these Bennett hopes to raise the £2m he needs to build two Thunderstar rockets, the design he hopes will win the X-Prize. If they had that money available tomorrow Bennett and his team would attempt an X-Prize flight in about 18 months’ time.

This being the UK, however, getting to that stage is proving tough. ‘Because this country isn’t very pro-space the only kind of encouragement we get is from the press,’ claimed Bennett. ‘Even then, instead of viewing Starchaser as what it is, a small aerospace company trying to doing something innovative, the press is constantly looking to just label me as some sort of boffin – they’ve done the same with [Prof Colin] Pillinger.

That’s a general sort of attitude we’ve got to fight.’ Bennett knows that if he were in the US he’d get a lot more help and encouragement from both private and government sources. Though any X-Prize bid must be privately funded, there is nothing to stop the state helping out with facilities for such things as testing.

Bennett’s experience of the government has been particularly disappointing. ‘We’ve tried to contact the government several times, and you just get the run-around. It is difficult,’ he said. Instead, Starchaser is talking to the Australian government about making its X-Prize flight from the country’s famous Woomera test range, regularly used for international hypersonic flight research.

‘We’ve talked to the Australian government and the people who look after the range in Woomera, and they are very positive and want to work with us.’

The X-Prize Thunderstar rocket will be Starchaser’s 15th launcher. It will be 27m high and in Bennett’s own words is ‘kind of pencil shaped with four fins at the bottom’.

A launch escape system sits on top of the capsule, equipped with its own rocket to pull it away from the main spacecraft in the event of trouble. (A similar system was used for the Apollo Saturn V rocket.)

Inside the 1.6m-diameter Thunderstar sit three astronauts, with one person at the front and two at the back. They will wear Russian-made spacesuits, one of which Bennett already has for evaluation purposes.

The rocket’s twin Churchill III engines will be fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene forced into their ignition chambers by helium gas. Each engine will be capable of 15 tonnes of thrust and will burn for 70 seconds. While the capsule continues to its target altitude of 100km, the booster will fall back to Earth and will land using parachutes.The escape system will detach from the capsule once its rockets have finished firing. Then the capsule will be in a ballistic trajectory, its occupants finally reaching space and experiencing zero gravity.

Coming back down to Earth the capsule’s skin will heat up to only about 600 degrees C, avoiding the need for a heat shield. A drogue chute will be released to slow the capsule down, after which the pilot will pull a lever to change the chute’s position to tumble the capsule so that it is facing the Earth ‘belly first’. Two more parachutes will then be deployed, the second a steerable canopy. This will be steered using servomotors, as human strength would not be sufficient, guiding it safely back to Earth.That is the theory.

For the first three flights Bennett’s Thunderstar will be unmanned. He hopes the fourth will make history by claiming the X-Prize. However, even if Rutan beats it to the $10m this year that would not be the end for Starchaser Industries, said Bennett.

Its focus would then switch to providing a low-cost micro-satellite launcher for the global satellite industry.

‘We are doing feasibility studies,’ said Bennett. ‘We’re looking at how we could adapt our technology to launching satellites. It is difficult because the systems we’re currently developing are designed to get people up there, and get them there relatively slowly.

If you want to put something into orbit you’ve got to go very fast.’Bennett would have to increase the speed of the Thunderstar launcher from its current 4,000mph to 17,500mph to reach a useful orbit. Key to Bennett’s vision of a low-cost launcher is the fact that much of it would be reusable.

As well as the Thunderstar for a first stage, the satellite launcher would have two further stages, which would both be expendable. Only the first stage would return, but that would comprise 60 per cent of the launch vehicle.The satellite launcher is still on the drawing board, but real hardware for Thunderstar is being built and Bennett hopes to test the launch escape system at Morecambe Bay in August or September this year.

The plan now is to test the launch escape system for the capsule and complete funding and build the Churchill engines. ‘We’re looking to test the Churchill Mark III engines this summer after we’ve done the launch escape system tests,’ said Bennett.

‘We’ve just got quotes in for manufacturing the engine and it should only take a couple of months to make it.’

Almost inevitably, he added: ‘We’re looking for sponsorship for the engine.’

If Bennett and Starchaser manage to scrape together enough support to get a manned rocket up into the edges of space, they will achieve something not done by the UK since its 1960s’ government-backed space programme was cancelled. In that event, it is likely the media would be less inclined to pigeon-hole him as a ‘boffin’ and elevate him to the status of national treasure.