There's no such thing as a free launch

January 5, 2007

It's hard for today's students to find an uncharted venue for their gap year. Vietnam is so passe. China? Positively out of date.

So now one London postgraduate is looking for sponsorship to boldly go where no student has gone before.

Michael Halls-Moore, who is taking a PhD in aeronautical engineering at Imperial College London, is looking for sponsorship to become the first student space tourist.

Mr Halls-Moore set up a website at the end of last year to raise money for the trip. He sells advertising space on www.BuyMeToTheStars.com to pay for the trip he hopes to make by 2010. Benefactors can sponsor stars and galaxies on a map on the site.

He explains on the website that while a sub-orbital trip costs just over £100,000, he has set his target at £1 million because it is "a nice round number".

But he says that he does not expect to reach £1 million. This is perhaps just as well since, when this issue of The Times Higher went to press, he had raised £170. The fact that the total had not budged since before Christmas is probably due to the intervening holiday period.

Mr Halls-Moore said his postgraduate research into engines called ramjets and scramjets has some relevance to the trip. While his studies are more to do with high-atmosphere aircraft, he said the engines could be used along with rockets to propel vehicles into space.

He admitted that some might think the money could be better spent on traditional good causes. But he said that popularising space travel could bring down prices for all in future.

He plans to fly with Virgin Galactic, which will offer sub-orbital flights from 2009. Flights will last about two hours and include five minutes of weightlessness.

A specially constructed plane with a hybrid rocket motor will reach an altitude of 360,000ft, some 30,000ft above the official definition of the point where space begins. If successful in making the trip, Mr Halls-Moore would be allowed to call himself an astronaut.

Mr Halls-Moore, who is a part-time laboratory demonstrator, said the undergraduates for whom he conducts experiments have been supportive of his project.

Imperial has also given Mr Halls-Moore's venture a fair wind, featuring it in the December online news bulletin. But he added: "I am not sure how realistic they think it is."

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