Reliving Dartmoor’s rocket launch

Laura White
Laura White

Over 20 years ago, former toothpaste technician Steve Bennett launched his Starchaser 3 rocket from the heart of Dartmoor, near Okehampton.

In this week’s spread, we remember that day:
Mr Bennett’s space bid in March 1998 ended badly when his £70,000 rocket plunged to the ground seconds after take-off, setting alight two square miles of Dartmoor.

The story caused a stir at the time, attracting media attention from all over the world with German and Japanese TV crews topping the bill. Literally hundreds of media personnel had descended on 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.”

Almost 20 years on from this failed attempt, on September 11th 2017, Starchaser launched an 8.3-metre (27-foot) research rocket – Skybolt 2 – from a mobile launch platform in
Northumberland, England. The rocket was created as a result
of a collaboration between the University of Chester and

The Skybolt 2 launch was another step towards creating a craft capable of carrying passengers into space. Skybolt 2 will be followed in 18 months by the launch of Nova 2; a 12 metre (39 foot) rocket with room for one passenger. After that, the intention is to build a reusable three-person rocket ship called Thunderstar. It is the Thunderstar which will ultimately be used for space tourism.

The launch of Skybolt 2 has put Britain back on the map of space-faring nations. Before the company began launching its rockets, the last British spaceflight was back in 1971 when a Black Arrow rocket carried the Prospero satellite into orbit.

Now, Steve and his Starchaser team need to capitalise on their success and move forward in pursuit of their dreams.

For more of Richard’s photos, his book  “More by luck than Judgement” is currently on special offer at £15 from

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