HISTORIES AND MYSTERIES OF DARTMOOR: The day a space rocket set Dartmoor ablaze

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

The usual peace and quiet of a national park was interrupted earlier this month when a huge rocket was launched by a space tourism company in Northumberland National Park.

Starchaser Industries, founded by Steve Bennett, fired the eight metre-long Skybolt 2 missile almost a mile into the sky before it broke into three pieces and returned to earth.

But the successful launch was in stark contrast to Mr Bennett’s space bid in March 1998, when his £70,000 rocket plunged to the ground seconds after take-off, setting alight two square miles of Dartmoor.

The 22ft Starchaser 3 was scheduled to roar to 15,000 feet in 34 seconds from a Dartmoor military range near Okehampton. Instead it took off in a cloud of white smoke, rapidly tilted over at about 200 feet, and powered into the ground a quarter of a mile from the launch pad.

Burning debris quickly set light to the moor and Mr Bennett, his students, and 40 Army personnel from nearby Okehampton camp fought to control the flames.

But they had to withdraw after the fire spread into a nearby military firing range where it was feared there could be live ammunition.

A spokesman for Devon Fire and Rescue Service, which sent two appliances from Okehampton to the scene, said at the time: “We could not enter that area because of unexploded ammunition, so it was allowed to burn until it reached a natural break. Two square miles of gorse and bracken have been burnt.”

Thankfully those scenes weren’t repeated on this occasion and Mr Bennett, who set up the company 25 years ago, claims he is just a few years away from launching people into space.
The rocket blasted off the launch vehicle at Northumberland National Park successfully, filling the miles and miles of surrounding moorland with the sound of rocket fuel burning.