The Rocket man of Hyde

PUBLISHED: 23:15 27 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

We have lift off. The 38ft tall Nova 1 takes off from Morecambe Bay in 2001

We have lift off. The 38ft tall Nova 1 takes off from Morecambe Bay in 2001

Steve Bennett hopes to blast off into space in a rocket designed and built in Hyde, Cheshire <br/>Photographs by Kirsty Thompson

Two rockets in the car park are the only outward sign that there's anything unusual about unit seven on an otherwise anonymous industrial estate in Hyde. But step through the door and you're in a mini-Nasa.

Boosters, nose cones and engine parts are extraordinary decorative features in the corridors and photographs of explosive launches cover the walls of Steve Bennett's office. He is Cheshire's own rocket man, who has spent much of his life reaching for the stars and whose company logo reads 'The sky is not the limit'.

As a schoolboy he was receiving industrial quantities of chemicals and had converted his chemistry set into a rocket testing lab. He is now selling tickets for passenger flights to space on rockets designed and built in Hyde - the first two went for 250,000 a piece.

'I would love to go up in it but I'm a bit of a chicken and I'm not going up there until I am absolutely confident that it is safe,' Steve said.

'I have been working on it for about 15 years so I'm not going to rush into it now.'

The next test will take place next year when his latest model will be launched from Morecambe Bay.

'We're in talks with the Civil Aviation Authority over how high the rocket will go but it will be a few tens of thousands of feet, high enough to fly properly and then the whole thing will come back into the bay.

'We'll be testing the emergency safety mechanism,' he added. 'We'll jettison the capsule to make sure it launches far enough from the rocket in case of an emergency.

'We are now taking the rocket around 100 schools as part of our educational outreach and a child from one of those schools will win a competition to push the big red launch button.'

Steve, a former soldier who served in the Falklands, has pressed the button himself plenty of times since his first launch in 1993.

'I launched my first rocket, Starchaser, in 1993. It was a back bedroom hobby. I had a dream that one day I would launch people, or myself, into space.'

Starchasers Two, Three and Three A followed and then came Nova One, five times bigger than anything he had built before. That flew successfully and proved that the science and the scale are no obstacles to him. But finances are.

'We need to raise money - we're about 7 million away from launching people into space. If we had the money today we'd be about four or five years from launch but if there's no bucks, there's no Buck Rogers.'

And Steve is now hoping his plans for a space centre in the Cheshire countryside will also take off. 'We are looking for a new base in Cheshire,' he said. 'It would cost 65million and would house our workshops which we could give tours around, a gift shop, caf, and the largest planetarium in Europe.

'It's wonderful to see what we have achieved. Sometimes it feels like I'm pushing a huge rock up a hill but now and again I will look down and see how far I've come. I had a dream to do this and I am living the dream.'

But why not make the step from launches in Morecambe Bay to workingwith Nasa where they have realistic ambitions to take men back to the moon then to Mars?

'If we were to go and work at Nasa we would be very small cogs in a very big machine,' he said. 'We'd be working on a widget that fits on a widget that is such a tiny piece of the whole rocket. We'd be little more involved in helping the space programme than someone who buys something from the Kennedy Space Centre shop.

'Here we can see the whole project through from paper design to launch. It's much better to be a big fish in a small pond than a tiny, tiny fish in a huge lake.

'Some people in this country are doing small scale stuff, the sort of things I was doing about 15 years ago but you can count on the fingers of one hand the people internationally who are doing things on the scale we do them now.'

And although Steve has devoted much of his life to the space race - he even honeymooned at Cape Canaveral but is now divorced - he has escaped the rat race and lives on a canal boat at Nantwich.

'It's a real change of pace from rockets but it gives great variety. It's lovely to be able to open the curtains and see the fields and the cows and to be able to change the views every day if I choose.'

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