Touchdown: Cheltenham engineer Roland McLelland Celebrates His Part in Rosetta Mission that Saw Probe Philea Land on Comet in Deep Space

A retired engineer who worked for a former Cheltenham firm followed today’s dramatic bid to land a probe on a comet with particular interest. Roland McLelland, 71, was involved in the development of a crucial component in the Rosetta mission, which took 10 years and travelled more than six billion kilometres before landing yesterday. The event was tinged with sadness, as it came on the day he attended the funeral of a former colleague who was also instrumental in devising the component, which will be used in an experiment on the comet, to find out what it is made up of. Mr McLelland worked on the component for the Rosetta mission at the former Polyflex Aerospace, on the site of what is now Moog at Cheltenham Trade Park. He said Polyflex was a small precision engineering company specialising in high-pressure pneumatics for the aerospace industry. He started working there in 1990. By the mid-1990s, he said: “We got involved with Rutherford Appleton laboratory in Harwell. “We ended up providing a high-pressure helium storage and release system, which was part of the Philae lander to provide clean, pure helium for it.” He added: “On a visit to Rutherford Appleton I met one of the senior mechanical engineers who outlined a problem they were having trying to put together this high-pressure helium storage system. “I realised it was for a space mission because of the parameters that were being talked about.” Mr McLelland explained the rigours the Cheltenham-produced component – which he described as “the size of two cricket balls” – would have to withstand on its space journey by saying: “The release mechanism we had used in the previous job would not be appropriate for the space mission.” He added: “It was one of our first direct involvements in space.” He went on: “We were the beneficiaries of a SMART award, which allowed us to take our technology and redevelop it for space applications. “Rosetta was one of the first opportunities.” Although more than a decade had passed since Mr McLelland worked on the component, he had still followed the mission. “At the end of my working life I continued to be involved in the space industry so I was continually in touch with the Rosetta team at Rutherford,” he said. Mr McLellan watched the live feed from the European Space Agency (ESA), with the sound turned down before he saw staff leap up and start to laugh. Summing up his relief, he said: “That’s another step in the direction and, hopefully, it’s down undamaged and the science begins to work. “It’s tremendously exciting. I was confident that everything possible had been done to make this mission work. “We’re all aware of the special risks and things that can go wrong.” “I’m very pleased that it’s down and, hopefully, the next step is going to be good. “It’s a feeling of gratification – we got there, we did it.” He explained: “My own little piece of it will be part of the Ptolemy experiment.” He added: “My next tenterhooks is will the helium storage system work after two years in storage, two years in flight. Our bit is still to work, still to come but we have got every confidence that it will. We tested it as much as we could have.” Yesterday he attended the funeral of former colleague, John Taylor. “He was our senior engineer and was essentially there for the development of that system but he didn’t live to see the mission completed, which was kind of poignant,” said Mr McLelland.

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