When it comes to rocket technology, lunar landings and space travel, nations such as Russia and the US are probably those that spring to mind most readily. Until now, as South Africa returns to the fray of building space rockets.

US-trained South African aerospace engineer Mark Comninos established his own company, Marcom Aeronautics & Space, in 2002 and aims to draw on his country’s expertise and bountiful resources such as liquid oxygen to propel South Africa to the forefront of satellite launch vehicle technology.

The abundant availability of liquid oxygen in the country is undoubtedly an asset to any rocket technology venture, as is the knowledge and experience of handling it. Comninos is certain a satellite launch can be achieved in the country and has developed a detailed design for a small satellite launch vehicle (SLV) called the Cheetah-1, fuelled by the easiest-to-handle type of liquid rocket fuel – liquid oxygen and refined kerosene.

“Liquid oxygen is easily available in South Africa, and there is a lot of local experience in handling it; the only problem is that no energy company produces refined kerosene locally – there is no market here,” Comninos said enthusiastically.

“I’ve been looking into this for 7 years. All the raw materials, to the required quality, necessary to build the components of the rocket are available in South Africa,” he added.

While Marcom has the ambition and detailed plans for its Cheetah-1 2-stage design rocket, it will need to build an assembly facility and rocket engine test facility. A proposed launch site for the project has been identified as the Overberg test range in the Western Cape, which has all the necessary control, tracking and telemetry facilities. It will still be necessary however, to build a launch pad, a vehicle assembly pad and ground support infrastructure.

Comninos’ belief and optimism for this liquid oxygen-fuelled dream is undeterred though, as he states, “I believe that it can all be done – from start to the first flight in 3 years.”