In a grass-covered ammunition bunker on a former rocket test site in the heart of England, I am handed a push-button igniter for an experimental rocket motor.
The man in charge, the flamboyantly mustachioed rocketeer Daniel Jubb, voices the countdown and I press the firing button – almost on time – and I'm left momentarily speechless as a rocket in the unmanned bunker next door fires with a howling whoosh and a dazzling white flash on the mission control screen in front of us.
This was not, however, just a bit of fun set up for BBC Future's benefit: this test firing is a genuine one, in which a novel rocket propellant formula is fired for only the third time. Such tests allow Jubb, founder of rocket maker Falcon Project, to use high-speed video to scrutinise the way the fuel burns.
Falcon Project makes research rockets and specialist fuels for the UK and US militaries but is perhaps best known for prototyping a hybrid rocket motor for the Bloodhound Supersonic Car, which is being built in the hope of setting a 1,000mph (1,600km/h) land speed record on a South African lake bed sometime in the next couple of years.
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Falcon Project is far from alone here at Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire, the former site of Britain's Cold War rocket development efforts. The firm is just one of those in a surprising British rocketry renaissance, in which a clutch of rocket firms are setting up in business at Westcott to try and put British rocket engineering back on the map after many decades of decline.
These pioneering companies include Reaction Engines. It will be testing Sabre, its revolutionary air-breathing rocket engine for future spaceplanes, plus the "precooler" that lets it scavenge liquid oxygen from the air as it powers through the atmosphere.
Rocket scientist Daniel Jubb says there is a "new sense of energy" at the site (Credit: Paul Marks)
Also on the site is rocket motor manufacturer Moog UK, whose Leros 1b engine powered Nasa's Juno space probe into orbit around Jupiter last year – using a new motor technology which Moog has also seen flown on Nasa Mars and Mercury probes.
Last summer, Moog-UK was acquired by a former rival, Nammo, a maker of rocket engines and thrusters – everything from those that separate Ariane 5 rocket stages to those that steer and vector satellites. And Nammo, which also have a presence on the site, is also making the hybrid motor for Bloodhound SSC's record attempt.
The testing site is also home to a rocket and propulsion test services company, Airborne Engineering, some of whose facilities are set to be seriously upgraded as part of an £8m investment in Westcott by the UK Space Agency. They’re hoping it will spark a new British space race – especially with the Space Act now in force, allowing commercial spaceports to launch rockets and spaceplanes from British soil as soon as 2020.
That investments such as the space agency's are needed is pretty evident on a drive around the sprawling Westcott site: due to its age and abandonment some of the old facilities are in a state of disrepair. Originally a World War Two training base for bomber crews, RAF Westcott became the Guided Projectile Establishment in 1946, and was renamed the Rocket Propulsion Establishment (RPE) a year later.
Britain's history in rocketry is one characterised by inveterate penny-pinching
One of RPE's initial roles was to study seized Nazi rocket planes and rockets – like the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, the V1 Doodlebug and the V2 ballistic missile – and also learn what they could from captured German rocket scientists, some of whom stayed on as employees and worked at the site until the 1960s. "As an apprentice at Westcott I well remember seeing a V2 rocket in its trailer, a Messerschmitt Komet and a Saunders-Roe rocket plane," says Ed Andrews, a Westcott veteran who now helps look after the historic site.
Through the Cold War years, the Rocket Propulsion Establishment contributed significantly to most of Britain's rocket programmes, including developing and testing the Raven and Cuckoo engines for Skylark, the British suborbital rocket that undertook an astonishing 450 space science missions between 1957 and 2005. "Skylark is an unsung British hero really," says Doug Millard, curator of spaceflight at the Science Museum in London.
The site once housed captured German technology, like the Me-163 rocket fighter (Credit: Ed Andrews Collection)
But Skylark was a rare success: Britain's history in rocketry is one characterised by inveterate penny-pinching. Its attempt to build the Blue Streak ballistic missile was abandoned in 1960, for instance, ultimately in favour of America's Polaris submarine-launched missile system. And after developing Black Arrow, its own low-Earth-orbit rocket, which successfully launched Britain's Prospero space environment monitoring satellite from Woomera, Australia, in 1971, the UK space programme was cancelled by the government.
So although Britain became the third nation in space - it simultaneously became the first nation to successfully develop an indigenous rocket launch capability and then abandon it. This has left the UK a maker of satellites and space probes – an industry worth £12bn ($17.1bn) per year – but lacking that most muscular of geopolitical spaceflight capabilities: the ability to launch its own rockets.
The atmosphere is getting back to what it once was, with regular rocket firings taking place – Daniel Jubb, rocket scientist
The effect on Westcott was to leave its huge rocket test stands, like K site, idle – and it's now definitely on the shabby side, despite it being a listed building of historic interest. The only signs that show it was ever used is the deeply scorched blast shields outside the buildings.
"K site was allegedly built to test solid rocket motors up to the size of Polaris. But to my knowledge it never did," says Andrews. At another decaying test stand, a cylindrical tank about 4m (13ft) in diameter was used to test underwater rocket motors for their submarine launch capabilities.
Just like the World War Two codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park, some 24km (15 miles) to the north east, the Westcott site seems heavy with a brooding atmosphere – one you could almost cut with a knife. "This was the UK's main rocket development site during the Cold War, with all sorts of important programmes centred here. But as time passed things fell away," says Millard.
Many of the earliest British rockets designs were tested at the facility (Credit: Paul Marks)
It's changing for the better now, however. "There is certainly a certain Cold War ambience here but with the new rocketry activities now taking place here there is a new sense of energy, the place is taking on a fresher character," says Jubb.
"The atmosphere is getting back to what it once was, with regular rocket firings taking place," he says.
Rising out of the trees in the middle of the lush, leafy Westcott park is a bizarre-looking, five-storey-high corrugated aluminium shed, called the P2 site. Its purpose? "Drop testing," says Andrews – to see if a fuelled, ready-to-fire rocket motor could be safely dropped in an accident.
Westcott's new rocketeers will have new environmental concerns to worry about, not least because the site is a bit of a wildlife haven
"A crane on top of P2 was used to lift up the item being drop tested. They had to be sure that while in transit they could protect and contain the contents in the event of it being dropped or involved in an accident," he says.
In addition to such safety concerns, Westcott's new rocketeers will have new environmental concerns to worry about, not least because the site is a bit of a wildlife haven – with kestrels, rabbits, deer, red kites and bats amongst its occasional inhabitants. "We have had to relocate some bats from some old buildings to make sure they are kept happy," says Mark Thomas, chief executive of Reaction Engines.
The Blue Streak rocket was an ambitious British project to build a ballistic missile (Credit: John McCullagh/Wikimedia Commons)
"We've also done a huge amount of work on noise reduction. The five-metre-high wall around our Sabre test stand is for noise suppression and we expect a remarkably low level of noise as a result. But tests will only run for short periods in any case," says Thomas. That'll please the neighbours: former Prime Minister Tony Blair's country pile is next door.
Whether British-based rocketeers can create a resurgence at Westcott remains to be seen. But at least they now have a chance. Just last week Reaction Engines secured a massive £26m ($35.9m) investment from aircraft and rocket maker Boeing and jet engine maker Rolls-Royce.
"It's cheering to see Westcott starting to hum again, there is some really exciting work going on in rocketry here," says Millard.
Britain has such an amazing heritage in rocketry and for many years we have let it languish. The future is what it is all about now – and you couldn't find a better place in which to plan the future than here."
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