Rocket man aims to hit 1000mph on land

It's been 15 years but Andy Green is preparing to strap himself to a rocket again. Steve Colquhoun reports.

It's been 15 years but Andy Green is preparing to strap himself to a rocket again. Steve Colquhoun reports.

The term "hero" gets bandied about a lot, but finding the genuine article is about as difficult as it is to locate unexplored frontiers in this digitally connected world.

Wing Commander Andy Green OBE is an unlikely embodiment of the former, with a charter to conquer the latter; to wit, the world's fastest man wants to go even faster and he wants to take us all for the ride.

Green, those with long memories may recall, is the man who drove the Thrust jet-powered car to the world land speed record of 763 miles per hour (1228km/h) in 1997 on a dry lake bed in Nevada. That makes him the first - and still only - man to break the sound barrier in a land-based vehicle.

His supersonic record has stood unchallenged for 15 years, but now a golden age for the land speed record looms as at least five teams from around the world hone a new breed of jet- and/or rocket-propelled cars in pursuit of Green's mark.

The 50-year-old RAF fighter pilot is the star recruit of the Bloodhound program, which aims not just to smash through the current mark, but to blast all the way to 1000mph (1609km/h) on a lake bed in South Africa in 2016. To put that in another context, if he succeeds, Green will be covering 450 metres a second.

The Englishman was in Australia this week in an ambassadorial role with luxury car maker Bentley, with which he recently teamed up to film a 300km/h pass at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the company's flagship, a V12-powered Mulsanne.

Although tall, tanned and handsome enough to appear somewhat heroic, Green defies the stereotype with the thoughtful demeanour and sharp observations of a college professor - albeit one with greater courage and steelier resolve than an entire faculty could muster.

His determination lies not only in smashing his own record, but also in firing the imaginations of school students everywhere to open their eyes to "the magic of science and technology".

He and Richard Noble, the fellow Brit behind the Bloodhound project and 1997's successful Thrust program, plan to welcome the world into the cockpit of Bloodhound in what will become the world's largest communal science project.

Thousands of schoolchildren in Britain are already following the program and millions more worldwide are expected to log in by the time Bloodhound finally lines up for its record attempt.

In an unprecedented move, the Bloodhound team has made public every aspect of the car's design and engineering. During testing and record attempts, it will stream live video from 16 onboard cameras and readings from numerous sensors.

Green even plans to talk to his web-based audience as he drives, describing everything he is doing, feeling and seeing while Bloodhound rockets to speeds never before achieved.

Green enjoyed being one of the millions to watch Felix Baumgartner stage the world's highest skydive from the edge of space last year, when the world sat up and applauded the boundary-pushing feat in a manner rarely seen since the 1969 moon landing. Still, Green felt there was also an opportunity missed.

"I was a tiny bit disappointed, I was expecting him to have the camera on his shoulder and the commentary of him as he was jumping, saying what he was feeling or thinking," Green says.

He and Noble will measure the ultimate success of the Bloodhound project not by the speed it attains, but by the number of impressionable young minds it reaches.

"If we get to 950mph and we just can't get [to 1000], if there's something we just haven't foreseen, but we can say 'this is as fast as we'll go', then we've now got 10 million people saying 'cool, that's the answer to that' and we've achieved something massive.

"But if we get to 1000mph and no one even noticed, then we've failed."

He describes the land speed record as "one of the few remaining genuine adventures".

"That was an easy sell in the 1930s when Malcolm Campbell was doing it because they genuinely were some of the fastest people on earth," Green says.

"It's much more difficult to explain the technology now, but we have a unique advantage now with YouTube, the internet, graphic animations and running live video from the car. We can start to bring it to life in a way that hasn't been possible."