Space tourism: it’s the next big thing. And it’s found a home in Manchester. Richard Hector-Jones sees stars.
Hyde. Greater Manchester.
Perhaps, not the first place you’d think of when discussing the cutting-edge future of space travel.
Be that as it may, this one-time hub of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution just east of Manchester is home to Steve Bennett and the remarkable Starchaser Industries – the UK’s leading private developer in the field of space tourism.
It’s an independent company that amongst its many milestones to date has successfully flown the largest rocket ever launched in the UK.
“There’s this perception that only countries like the United States, Russia or China can do the sort of tests and launches that we do,” explains Steve patiently and probably not for the first time. “But of course it’s a nonsense. You don’t have to be NASA to launch a rocket. In fact NASA don’t actually launch rockets; they subcontract all of that out to private companies.
“You know,” continues Steve, “the Space Shuttle had ‘U.S.A.’ on its wing but that didn’t stand for United States of America. It actually stood for United Space Alliance, which was just a consortium of private companies.
“I’m not saying we’re big enough to work with NASA yet,” he clarifies. “But if ever we were, we are just the kind of organisation they could come to.”
Steve’s Starchaser Industries project has been going for 23 years now. It’s a life-long fascination borne of a child’s wide-eyed wonder at watching both Star Trek and the Apollo Moon landings aged just five. Over that time the concept of commercial space travel has evolved remarkably from sci-fi fantasy to a scientific reality possibly achieved in our lifetime. Who’d have thought back in those early days, for example, that companies such as Virgin Galactic would now be trying hard to turn space travel into a reality.
“Branson knows it can make money,” says Steve. “He’s not stupid. I ask the kids and teachers that we work with whether they’d actually go into space given the chance and seven out of ten say they would. That’s a huge market to tap into if you are a businessman.”
In the last quarter century, from its modest base east of Manchester, Starchaser has sent numerous test rockets into the sky and rather more alarmingly dropped its space capsules out of aircraft above the deserts of Arizona to test their resilience.
“We’ve done this a few times actually,” quips Steve. “We’ve even chucked one out of an aeroplane that had someone in it! The guy inside also makes the parachutes we use for these tests so he must be pretty certain he’s made them well. I’ve done 130 parachute jumps in my time but this guy’s done over 13,000. He’s remarkable.”
Before we run away with ourselves here there’s a question that needs to be asked to settle the nerves of the scientific layman like many of us.
Steve, can anyone just go out and do this sort of thing? Don’t you need some sort of license? Aren’t there any monitoring bodies that might want to know what’s going on?
“No, essentially you just get on with it,” says Steve. “I mean you need to stick by legal rules but they’re the same rules that any factory or business has to adhere to when working with aviation fuel. I’ve been launching rockets for thirty years now. There was no degree in rocket building when I was young. I’ve simply learnt an eclectic selection of skills that allows me to do this.”
Right, moving on.
One of the keenest skills that Steve has had to develop in his time as CEO of Starchaser is the tricky art of fundraising. This is after all a commercial organisation not a government-funded project. To this end other than seeking private finance and sponsorship (the successful LEXX (Starchaser 3) for example was sponsored by a video company to promote a science fiction series), Steve and his team go to schools across the UK teaching children and teachers to look to the skies and broaden their physical and psychological horizons through Starchaser.
“We’ve been going into schools for many years now,” says Steve proudly, “engaging with tens of thousands of pupils to understand that science such as this is within their grasp; that it is for them if they want it. I believe we’re in the ideal position to help young people explore their potential and enjoy the possibility that their dreams can become real.
“There’s a good chance that the first person that lands on Mars is going through school right now,” he continues. “Wouldn’t it be just amazing if this most famous person on Earth said he or she got into it because some crazy guy called Steve came to their school when they were a kid with his Starchaser project.”
Although the dual role of scientist and fundraiser (“chief plate spinner”) means Steve can’t be complacent he believes that the future is looking good for Starchaser Industries. And if the plans for the next few years are anything to go by he’s got a point.
“We’re launching a new rocket in September,” he confirms. “This one is just 4m in length but contains fascinating experiments from four universities. We’ve got twenty-seven schools attending so far so this should be very good for our profile.
“After that the long-awaited Nova 2 will launch in 2017 which ties in with the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik and our own 25th anniversary.
“Then in 2019 we hope to launch Nova 2 again but this time with a person inside to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings. This will be a milestone for us as well as being my own personal ‘thank you’ to that project for inspiring me to start the Starchaser project all those years ago.”
You can’t talk about space travel and rockets without at some point touching on legacy. Anyone that’s seen that sublime piece of cinema, The Right Stuff, knows that. When asked about his legacy Steve speaks with earnest clarity.
“I want to be the person that made it commonplace for people to think about going into space for work or for leisure,” he says. “Space is only 62 miles up. That’s not that far. I genuinely believe that space is where our future lies. We have finite resources and we are a growing population. If we can just get into orbit a lot of the issues we have on Earth will no longer be a problem and we could prosper for another 10,000 years or more.