A personal background
My involvement in rocketry started at the end of the 1970's, with the first of the rockets I built actually working reliably in 1979. The origins of my love of space actually started when I saw the first Moon landings on the TV, about a decade earlier, but it was not until the end of the 1970's, when I had outgrown my chemistry set, that my practical involvement started. I spent the next decade working in isolation trying (trying, being the operative word) to build everything from rocket motors to ramjets.
In fact, it was these early developments that got me my first brush with the media in 1983, first with the South Wales Echo newspaper, and then with TV-AM. The problem was, I spent rather more time building rockets and setting my bedroom on fire, than I did on studying, with predictable results, my school results were average, but I'd built some rather nice rocket injector heads. I learnt my lesson rather late, but luckily, not too late, hence the fact I managed to get my B.Sc and M.Sc degrees (although the Ph.D rather fell by the wayside).
In the early 1990's, I was involved in developing small scientific rocketry projects, one for a team who wanted a rocket system for depositing small ground stations on glaciers, and another for volcanic crater overflights. Hence my love for microspacecraft and landers.
A couple of years later, at the start of 1993, I helped start up the Aspire Rocket Programme with James Macfarlane and Rick Newlands. This grew out of the ASPIRE I Rocket Project, which had previously been started by James Murray and James Macfarlane - ASPIRE I had been running previously for a couple of years as a project by UK-SEDS (United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), and had successfully set a new altitude record for a UK built amateur rocket at over 10,000 feet at Mourmelon in France on a student launch campaign.
Work started on developing hybrid rocket motors in Aspire early in 1993 with the LOx / Polyethylene hybrid rocket motor becoming the propulsion system chosen, and with James Murray and myself furiously designing hybrid motors, and James Macfarlane equally furiously designing the avionics to go with them, and Rick Newlands also equally furiously designing rocket airframes. Aspire was making steady progress on the rocket launcher programme, with strong support from Dr Geoffrey Pardoe of Britain's Blue Streak Rocket Programme from the 1960's and LittLEO launcher from the 1980's. Dr Pardoe provided considerable inspiration for the team, and his enthusiasm was a galvanising influence. After Dr Pardoe's sad death, things unravelled somewhat for a while, with Aspire being badly let down by some people at Royal Ordnance Westcott regarding the use of static test facilities.
However, the anger the team felt at this let down, was then focussed into further rocket motor development, and Aspire first broke away from UK-SEDS, to become a separate organisation called AspireSpace, and gained the support of John Knopp, the owner of Knopp Electronic Services in Essex. John Knopp was hugely supportive, and helped tremendously in spurring AspireSpace on to subsequent test launches, providing inspiration to the whole team as had Dr Geoffrey Pardoe previously. John's sense of humour and wit actually kept AspireSpace from deviating too wildly from its course, and allowing us to set up a rocket centre at his large industrial facilities. Sadly, John Knopp died a few years later, and then things really unravelled, with the focus from the main purpose of the organisation being lost.
As well as being involved in the LOx / polyethylene hybrid rocket development (known as the H20 and H100 hybrid rocket motors) with James Murray, and design of the Aspire 2 and Aspire 3 vehicles, again with James Murray, my input saw the development of a Nitrous Oxide / Polyethylene hybrid rocket motor called the H2, and the design of a potential X-prize candidate manned space plane with Rick Newlands, as well as a winged crew return vehicle concept, again with Rick Newlands. Rick and I were, and still are, both very keen advocates of a type of hypersonic aircraft design known as a "waverider", and the designs we were working on above, all included waveriding cavities.
By the mid 1990's, in parallel with the experimental rocketry, I was developing an interest more and more in High Power Rocketry, where off-the-shelf rocket motors were the norm. The advantage I could see with this, were more rapid opportunities for test flights of avionics and payloads for the larger rockets. After I attended the 1995 International Rocket Weekened at Largs in Scotland, it was plain that there was a consensus forming amongst the UK rocketeers regarding setting up a national body for rocketry in the UK.
The following year, 1996, at the International Rocket Weekend in Scotland again, saw a collection of groups coming together, and forming a joint association which became the United Kingdom Rocketry Association (UKRA). At the initial meeting, I was there as one of the representatives of AspireSpace. At this point, my interest in High Power Rocketry grew even more.
By early 1998, with the focus of AspireSpace having moved away from the practical side to a more theoretical side, coupled with lots of meetings, which I was averse to for a technical / engineering project, I moved on from AspireSpace, and became involved in MARS due to their exciting space projects, and focus on practical development.
MARS had been operating since 1991, when it was founded by Ben Jarvis, and now took up the slack with practical hybrid rocket development, making the decision to use Nitrous Oxide as the hybrid rocket motor oxidiser, on the grounds that it was easier to handle than Liquid Oxygen.
Moving swiftly from a small Nitrous Oxide / Polyethylene hybrid rocket motor called the BK Flamer in 1997, designed by Ben Jarvis and Ken Lau, to launching the first rocket powered by an amateur hybrid in the UK in 1998 by a team of us in MARS, using Ben and Ken's superb BK Flamer hybrid rocket motor, I subsequently designed a much larger Nitrous Oxide / Polyethylene powered hybrid rocket motor for MARS, called the B4 hybrid rocket motor, a motor that as well as having been static tested several times at a secure private facility in the UK, has also powered the 17 ft tall Deimos-2 rocket on a launch on a private estate in Scotland for the launch of a rocket on the largest hybrid rocket motor used to launch a rocket in the UK, and a number of launches of the 25ft tall Deimos-Odyssey rocket at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada U.S.A. including a flight to over 25,000 feet.
The B4 motor was subsequently improved by redesigns by MARS members, Steve Woolhead and James Macfarlane, with James designing a novel throttle valve for in flight throttling of the B4 hybrid motor.
Other development work in MARS saw the first launches in the UK (by MARS) of composite cased hybrid rocket motors (where both combustion chambers and oxidiser tanks were fibreglass), and additionally, MARS has made great strides in onboard video systems by Chris Eilbeck, Dave Warman and James Macfarlane, and hybrid ground support systems and flow line umbilicals for hybrid launch vehicles through the excellent work of Steve Woolhead.
The most recent major rocket developments I have been involved in, were a project to launch a 40 ft tall, 4 ft diameter rocket with a manned capsule, launched in Hungary in the summer of 2005, by a team consisting of MARS and WRS members, a project by the Rocketmen Limited to launch a Robin Reliant 3-wheeled car re-engineered as a Space Shuttle glider, and launched in the summer of 2006, and also, work on a project for Reaction Engines Limited on an air breathing, hydrogen fuelled rocket engine for feedback into the development of the engine for the SKYLON spaceplane.