After the solar cistern

September 15, 1995

The expense of a NASA space toilet inspired a group of young scientists to reach for the stars. Ayala Ochert met them

When he heard that the toilet on the Space Shuttle had cost $90 million to develop and build, Philip Dembo, now publicity coordinator for AspireSpace, felt sure that space technology could be developed more cheaply. The team of amateur space enthusiasts who make up AspireSpace are already well under way in their project to put an amateur-developed rocket into orbit by the end of this century.

Called AspireSpace because it aspires to great heights, both literally and technically, the society is a testament to the British passion for DIY. Though the aim of the organisation is "to promote affordable space-flight technology", Dembo thinks that their motivation really boils down to a sense of adventure: "It is a huge adventure to me - that is why I am involved; I think that is why we are all involved."

On a more practical level, members of AspireSpace believe that space technology is unnecessarily expensive.

"The problem that the large space agencies have is that rockets are only, at best, about 98 per cent effective. It costs a lot to use one of these rockets, so when someone wants to put a satellite up, they want to make sure that the satellite is very robust and does not fail.

"So you have got a very expensive satellite that's very heavy and takes a lot of time to build. Because it's very heavy, it costs a lot to put it up. So you end up with a vicious circle," explains Dembo.

By developing low-cost launch technology, AspireSpace hopes to act as a catalyst for low-cost satellite technology, and so reverse this upward spiral. "We all want to be involved in the industry and the exploration of space, and this is one way that we can be. We all want to see space developed, and making it cheaper is one way of making that happen."

Aspire I, the first rocket in their series, was launched in Mourmelon, France in July 1992. The team included students from the universities of Bath, Bristol, Cambridge and Kent. They had met several years ago at Astrofes, a festival organised by the United Kingdom Society for the Exploration and Development of Space. With support from their university departments, as well as from various companies including British Airways and Irvin Parachutes, the project got off the ground.

The Aspire I thinktank have all now graduated and most are doing postgraduate study. James Murray, the team's programme manager and chief engineer is currently studying for his PhD in aeronautics at Bristol University. Philip Dembo is having his first taste of science on the Open University's science foundation course.

Tomorrow, they will test-launch the Aspire Development Vehicle (ADV), which will be blasted one and a half kilometres up into the sky and then brought gently back to earth by guided parachute. This launch will test out the electronics for the next major stage in their project - the Aspire II rocket, which should be ready by the end of next year and which will go up to a height of 100 kilometres, sustain several minutes of microgravity (weightlessness) and then come straight back down by parachute which can be re-used. Aspire III, due for completion by the year 2000, is being jointly developed by a similar organisation, Ausroc, in Australia. This rocket will manage to go into orbit around the Earth - the culmination of their efforts.

In the meantime, they are busy developing new and cheap rocket technology. Their most significant technical innovation is their "hybrid" rocket motor, which uses polythene and liquid oxygen. The use of polythene as rocket fuel was first dreamt up in the 1950s, but at that time polythene could not be made to the levels of purity required.

"There are a couple of places around the world where people are dabbling, but I suspect we are further along than anyone else. Although no commercial agency is using it, it has a huge amount of potential," says Dembo.

"The waste product from this motor is water, carbon dioxide and a little carbon monoxide, whereas if you have a motor like that on the side of the Space Shuttle it churns out all sorts of poisonous toxic stuff. So ours is quite an environmentally friendly rocket fuel."

AspireSpace also has an educational motive: "We want to educate people about what is possible in space, not least by allowing schools and universities to put their own payloads on board. We want people to understand that space does not have to be an extremely expensive activity, and that the UK does have a valuable role to play. In this country we have the attitude that space is just for the Americans and Russians and that it is not something to be taken very seriously - that is what we want to alter," says Dembo.

Aspire II will experience microgravity for about six minutes. Though short, this will be sufficient time for several scientific experiments. They plan to download pictures onto the Internet for schoolchildren to look at and learn from.

One part of the payload may be an infrared telescope, which will provide pictures that cannot be taken from Earth because of distortion by the atmosphere. "It would be rather like the Hubble telescope, but on a much smaller scale," claims James MacFarlane, who is a research assistant studying for an MPhil in radio location at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

His university's aerospace manufacturing systems research group has now become interested in the project and is helping to develop the rocket motor.

One scientist who has been keen to put his project into space but has been unable to get funding from NASA or ESA for a PhD in space biology, is Oliver Depeyer. He designed his experiment while an undergraduate in biochemistry at Oxford University and he calls it the Mugeloi experiment. It will test the effects of microgravity on the switching of genes by "operons".

"This is a very important concept in biochemistry," says Depeyer. "It is the entire basis on which genes work. Operons control what the gene makes, whether it is switched on or off, and how much gets produced. It's what causes people to be born, to get cancer - every biochemical process. If there was a difference in how they work in microgravity, that would be fundamental."

Scientists already recognise certain differences in how things behave under microgravity conditions - they notice that crystals grow better and bacteria grow more quickly. If the reason for these differences is change at a fundamental level - in the fluidity of DNA, for instance - then the Mugeloi experiment would provide an important contribution to biochemistry.

As their rockets get ever more sophisticated and expensive, Aspire will need the help of universities buying payload space on them. Aspire I cost less than Pounds 1,000, Aspire II will cost nearer Pounds 30,000 and Aspire III, the one that will go into orbit, will cost about Pounds 1 million. They will also need company sponsorship.

Dembo believes that difficult ethical questions can be bypassed by cutting the cost of space technology. "A common criticism of space-flight technology and exploration is that because we have got so many problems down here on the ground, why are we pouring all these billions of dollars into space research? But rather than spending billions of dollars, we are bringing it down to the millions range where we can actually make use of space for mankind and for commercial benefit."

AspireSpace has a web page http://www.gbnet.net/orgs/aspire

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