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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Private rocket launch is 'suicidal'
Bennett PA
Steve Bennett: Thunderbirds are go?
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

British rocket experts are denouncing as suicidal the latest plans of controversial rocket engineer Steve Bennett.

Just watch me. 'Seeing is believing', I say to my critics

Steve Bennett
If he goes ahead with them, he could well be killed, and the burgeoning British rocketry effort will be permanently stuck on the launch pad, they warn.

Their concerns were voiced as Bennett, from Manchester, prepared to unveil his latest project, which he describes as the world's first private spacecraft, at an exhibition in London.

He intends to become the first private astronaut to go into space with his own rocket. Within two years, he hopes to take two passengers into space with him. Critics are already calling it the "bye, bye, Bennett mission".

To boldly go

Steve Bennett's latest development is the Nova capsule.

Alongside it at the exhibtion will be a larger capsule called Thunderbird, which Bennett hopes will take him, and the two passengers, into space.

Rocket PA
Bennett's rockets: Some success, some failure
But other rocket experts are worried, not least because the Thunderbird capsule is actually a converted cement mixer, containing sheets of hardboard and a few computer joysticks.

"This is not like launching an off-the-shelf rocket to a few tens of thousands of feet," said British rocket expert Richard Osborne. "Getting to the edge of space is a very different matter. You have to have expertise, experience, tonnes of money and then test, test, test."

BBC News Online put these criticisms to Steve Bennett. He responded: "We are not planning any tests such as wind tunnel or vibration tests before we launch it. That is what the test flight is for."

'Ambitious project'

He confirmed that it was his intention for the Nova capsule to be launched on a 3,050-metre (10,000-ft) shake-down mission by a cluster of commercially available rocket motors all strapped together.

If he gets into that capsule and lights the rockets it will be, bye, bye, Bennett

Pete Davy, Pete's Rockets
Richard Osborne told BBC News Online that the rockets Mr Bennett was using each had a burn-time of six seconds, and if they all fired together would subject him and his capsule to high G-forces that they might not be able to withstand.

Even Steve Bennett's own team are surprised. Gurbir Singh, from Starchaser Industries, the rocketeer's own company, told BBC News Online that the mission was "somewhat ambitious".

Pete Davy, of Pete's Rockets, where many British rocket enthusiasts get their rockets, was more blunt: "If he gets into that capsule and lights the rockets it will be, bye, bye, Bennett."

But, despite these warnings, the Bennett launch schedule goes ahead. "I will be the first private astronaut," he said.

Commit to launch

But has Bennett got the "right stuff" to go into space? He is an accomplished parachutist but it will take more than that. In particular, training in a centrifuge will be needed so that he, and any passengers, can learn how to cope with the considerable G-forces, higher than those experienced on Nasa's space shuttle.

Bennett PA
Steve Bennett: "I will be the first private astronaut"
"I've only been in a centrifuge briefly when I took a ride in the one at Nasa's Johnson Space Center," Steve Bennett said. "I'll need more time. I'll probably have to go to Russia for that."

But Nasa denies he has been anywhere near their centrifuge, which is owned by the US Army and not at the Johnson Space Center anyway, and Singh said that no centrifuge training had taken place.

In the media, Steve Bennett has been called "Britain's answer to Nasa". Indeed, on his website, Bennett cites Nasa as one of his official sponsors. Nasa denies this and when this was pointed out, Bennett said: "Er, that might be an exaggeration, I'll look into that."

Within hours of this article appearing Nasa was removed from the list of official sponsors on Starchasers website.

According to Starchaser Industries, two, as yet unnamed, passengers have signed up to fly with Bennett for a fee that the company's website says is 500,000. In 1999, the company was offering a seat for 62,500.

If for any reason the mission does not go ahead, Bennett told us that their money is secure. "If they don't fly they will get their money back."


Starchaser Industries says that the Thunderbird will be launched using a "single, dependable, liquid-propellant engine". In the past, armed forces and space agencies have sweated over such engines, spending many years and enormous sums on them.

He has absolutely no chance of the X-Prize. Please don't launch

John Bonsor, Starr
But according to Singh, the sweating at Starchaser Industries has yet to begin, despite the launch date being less than 100 weeks away. He said that little work had been done on the liquid-fuelled rocket. "This is an aspiration. There are a couple of students looking at it," he said.

Bennett however, says something different: "I have the first prototype engine on the desk in front of me. We plan to test it on a military site later this year."

Rocket experts are somewhat puzzled by this, as Bennett has been banned, and caused all other rocketeers to be banned from military launch ranges, after he set fire to one when a rocket failed on launch a few years ago.

All agree that if Bennett is to get into space, and win the coveted $10 million X-Prize for the first private individual or company to do so, he will have to raise his game.

Amateur record

Bennett's crowning achievement so far is "launching a rocket to 20,000 ft (6096 m) that we believe is capable of going to 120,000 ft (36576 m). In fact, I lead the field," he told BBC News Online.

But Pete Davy is unimpressed: "For 30 you can put together a rocket that will reach 5,000 ft (1524 m). Sending a rocket to 20,000 ft (6096 m) can be done for less than 1,000."

The current British amateur rocket altitude record is 34,579 ft (10,540 m).

John Bonsor, of Starr, a Scottish rocketry group is puzzled. "I don't understand what is happening. He has been using cheap rockets, has a mixed bag of success and disaster and has achieved less than many others have working from their garage. It is ridiculous to claim that he leads the field, except in the number of crashes."

"I've come from nothing to being the leading contender in the X-Prize," counters Bennett.

"Only if he reinvents the laws of physics," replies Bonsor. "He has absolutely no chance of the X-Prize. Please don't launch."

Bennett's reply? "Just watch me. 'Seeing is believing', I say to my critics."

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