WEST SYSTEM: Epoxy: helping the UK reach for the stars
Steve Bennett started building rockets when he was just 12 years old. Today he’s the CEO of Starchaser Industries, which designs, builds and launches the UK’s biggest rockets – and WEST SYSTEM® epoxy plays a critical role.
The first rockets that Steve Bennett built were probably no more than 20cm tall. “I had mixed results; some flew, some didn’t,” he smiles. Inspired by the ground-breaking Apollo missions, Steve was unwittingly setting out on a path that would change the course of UK spaceflight history.
It was in 1992 that he established his group of companies, Starchaser Industries, to focus on spacecraft development and research. His ultimate aim? To make space tourism a reality; specifically, sub-orbital tourism. “For the last 20 years or so, our goal has been to take a person straight up and straight back down,” explains Steve. “They’d spend about five minutes beyond the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, where they’d see the curvature of earth against the backdrop of the blackness of space. They’d be weightless for four or five minutes. It’d be like a giant rollercoaster! This is the first step in making true space tourism possible.”
Although there have been no passengers on board Starchaser’s rockets yet, Steve believes they are ready. Even the company’s 11.28m Nova 1 rocket, launched in 2001 – which still retains the record for the biggest successful rocket launch from the British mainland – had a primitive capsule on board. “That came to earth very gently. More recently we’ve done several drop tests in the USA, launching a more sophisticated manned capsule with a parachute. It won’t be long.”
“I just love epoxy to bits.”
Given the critical safety requirements of these rockets – especially when manned – it’s essential they are strong. But to reach for the stars, they’ve also got be lightweight.
“Using epoxy helps us to achieve the right balance.”
“Considering the stresses on a rocket body, you’re looking at high strength to weight ratios,” explains Steve. “Using epoxy helps us to achieve the right balance.”
Starchaser Industries has been using epoxy to construct the body of its rockets since the early 2000s. A welcome injection of funding enabled them to start manufacturing their own components for much larger rockets, at which point Steve struck up a relationship with WSI. “I just love WEST SYSTEM epoxy to bits. I’ve spent 15 years using it, so I know it works.”
Each component of Steve’s rockets is built as a monocoque structure (a French term meaning ‘single shell’), which supports its load through its external skin. CAD is used to design the parts and corresponding moulding tools are manufactured. Steve and the team then lay woven roving fibreglass matting into the moulds and laminate it using epoxy. “The next day, it’s ready to pop out of the mould. It’s strong, lightweight – it really does the business,” says Steve.
Coming soon: Skybolt 2
2015 has already seen several launches of Starchaser’s 4.2m Tempest rocket, but summer 2016 will see an even bigger launch: the 9m Skybolt 2, which is supported by the University of Chester.
“We built a full-sized model of this rocket in 2006. This has covered more than 80,000 miles, visiting more than 1000 schools,” says Steve. “The real version will be launched from a floating platform at a coastal location and will have a number of cameras on board, as well as some university experiments and our own tests.
“The work we’re doing is a vital stepping stone in the journey towards space tourism and we want to share it with the wider community as much as we can.”
To find out more about non-marine applications for WEST SYSTEM epoxy, contact us.