Shade of things to come: Neil Armstrong ventured across the moon's surface on 20 July 1969, marking the start of efforts to claim our near neighbour. Photograph: NASA/New York Times/Redux.
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Who owns the moon? We're just going to have to get up there and find out

A legal loophole has made it impossible to say who can claim the moon - but with a wealth of minerals and "rare earth" elements, plus huge potential for space exploration, we'll have to get up there and fight it out.

“I know I may not make it through this lunar night.” The China Academy of Space Technology laid the pathos on thick when it gave its lunar robot Jade Rabbit a farewell speech at the end of last month. The rover had become mired in moon dust and was unable to enter hibernation. Facing 14 days without sunlight, the solar-powered robot, launched on 2 December, was unlikely to survive. “Good night, Planet Earth,” it said. “Good night, humanity.”

It looked like the end of a venture that could have accelerated the process of finding out who – if anyone – owns the moon. The ultimate goal for Jade Rabbit was to bore a hole in the moon and see what moon rock is made of. That’s because the Chinese think the moon’s minerals might be worth extracting. “They are looking at feasibility for mining the moon, and they are likely to do it if there’s a strong business case,” says Richard Holdaway, director of the space division at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which collaborates closely with China’s space programme.

There would be nothing illegal about such an operation because international laws covering the moon are “way, way behind”, as Holdaway puts it. In theory, anyone who could manage it (and afford it) could go to the moon tomorrow, dig out a huge chunk of lunar rock, bring it back to earth and sell it off to the highest bidder. The Chinese could take the moon apart and sell it bit by bit without breaking international law. The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: do we see a need to prevent that happening?

The moon’s bounty is not fanciful science fiction. “There is stuff on the moon to mine – no doubt about it,” Holdaway says. We know that minerals that are hard to find on earth, such as the “rare earth” elements and the metals titanium and uranium, are abundant up there. But the main prize is the lighter isotope of helium, known as helium-3. This gas is the critical fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, which promise an energy yield many times higher than the present generation of fission-powered reactors. Helium-3 costs roughly $10m a kilo. Though we don’t yet have commercial fusion reactors, these might not be far off. When they arrive, the demand for helium-3 will outstrip supply, and the easiest place to get more will be from moon rock. It couldn’t be easier: heat the rock and the gas comes out.

It’s not just the Chinese who have ambitions in this direction. Some private companies also have their eye on lunar rock as a source of riches. Most are based in the US, and they are actively working on lunar landers that will eventually be able to perform mineral extraction.

As yet, it is very hard to know whether the business case will stand up. It’s not a small endeavour to set up a factory on the moon. It is horrendously expensive to leave Planet Earth. Space on a shuttle is sold, like poultry, by weight. The cost of escaping the earth is roughly $25,000 per kilo. Anyone paying that kind of money upfront needs strong guarantees that the investment is worthwhile. That is why the space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow has asked the US government to nail down issues raised by who can mine the moon. “The time has come to get serious about lunar property rights,” he told a press briefing last November.

Bigelow made his money in hotels and property and has decided to pursue accommodation in space as his next venture. He already has a contract to supply astronaut habitats to Nasa; he has also said he wants to build habitats on the moon and, eventually, Mars. That plan, he argues, will be compromised unless issues of lunar ownership are clarified.

Two treaties cover the beyond-earth behaviour of nations and private companies. The oldest is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It says that “the exploration and use of outer space … shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries … and shall be the province of all mankind”.

The agreement wasn’t drawn up to deal with questions of property rights, however. “It strictly prohibits claims by sovereign nations, but it does not expressly prohibit private entities from claiming private property rights,” says Michael J Listner, a New Hampshire-based lawyer specialising in space policy. “Depending on who you talk to, that omission creates a loophole for private ownership rights.”

One of the purposes of the treaty was to allow private companies to engage in activities in space, creating the opportunity for establishing commercial satellite networks, for instance. Back when the pact was developed, the Soviet Union argued that nation states were the only proper actors in space; the US wanted to give private companies a chance to exploit the new frontier. So, a compromise was reached: Article VI says that non-governmental organisations have to be supervised by their nation states.

The treaty says nothing about those non-governmental actors claiming property rights, however. “It doesn’t prohibit them, it doesn’t allow them. It’s completely silent,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi who acts as an official observer to the UN effort to oversee the legal framework governing use of space.

This gaping hole in the legislation is where the 1984 Moon Agreement comes in. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs hosts the agreement, which states that the moon’s environment should not be disrupted, that it should be used only for peaceful purposes, “that the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” and that “an international regime” should be established “to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon when such exploitation is about to become feasible”.

It sounds cut and dried: no one can own bits of the moon without further negotiations. The problem is that the seven nations which have ratified the Moon Agreement have no investment in it – they are not space-faring. “It’s considered pointless because the US, China and Russia didn’t even become a party to it,” Listner says. “If any of the three had done that, it might have been more meaningful.” Holdaway agrees: “It’s not legally binding. China could send armies of robots and humans and effectively stick a flag in the ground and say: ‘It’s ours.’ ”

In truth, there is no cause for alarm. The technology required for commercial exploitation is still decades away. The main question for now is whether it will ever be worth anyone’s while to develop the landers and infrastructure necessary to kick-start lunar-based industry.

Google has given some an incentive to develop our lunar capabilities. It is offering $20m to anyone who is the first to land on the moon’s surface, travel 500 metres and then send a couple of high-definition broadcasts back to earth.

Eighteen teams are aiming at this “Lunar XPrize”, which expires at the end of next year. One of the front-runners is Moon Express, a company based in Silicon Valley, California. In December, it unveiled its design for a lunar lander named MX-1. MX-1 is “the size of a large coffee table” and will get into space in the same way most satellites are deployed: aboard a conventional rocket that releases the lander once it has reached roughly 2,000 kilometres in altitude. Fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, the MX-1 will then wend its way to the moon to carry out whatever tasks are required.

Bob Richards, the founder and chief executive of Moon Express, calls the lander the “iPhone of space”, because it can perform a variety of roles on the lunar surface. Moon Express intends to accomplish its first lunar sample return mission by 2020. “We expect that material to be very valuable, with a global market,” Richards says.

Though it sounds impressive, MX-1 is so far nothing more than a design. Things get a lot harder once they need to become reality, Listner points out. “It’s fun to talk about it on a blog. It’s another thing to get down to doing it,” he says. “This isn’t like opening up the Wild West: space is hard and dangerous. You’ve got to bring your air, your water, your food – and we need to develop an understanding of how the lunar environment affects the human physiology.” It’s likely that the labour of resource extraction will involve human beings as well as robots, and we don’t know what it will be like to do a long stint on the moon. “We have some experience with the Apollo missions, but, between all those missions, humans have spent less than 100 hours performing activities on the surface,” Listner says.

Clearly there’s a long way to go – and it is entirely possible that nothing will be done about the legal issues until the first claims are staked. That’s what is so useful about China’s Jade Rabbit project: it makes it clear claims will be staked soon. Once a claim is laid, something will have to give, Gabrynowicz reckons. “When it becomes apparent that there are going to be credible attempts at resource extraction, there will have to be some diplomatic discussions,” she says.

According to Richard Bilder, a space law specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the high probability of those discussions hitting an impasse makes it worth pushing nations to start the process of setting up a legal regime right away. “This is likely to be easier to accomplish now, while prospects for lunar extraction are still only speculative, than after one or several countries succeed in establishing a lunar base and have clear special stakes and interests,” he says.

Yet Bilder remains pessimistic about the likelihood of this happening. The United States, he notes, seems uninterested, and there is little incentive for China and India to attempt to resolve the legal problems now – they will just want to get on with establishing lunar bases and launching whatever activities they deem worth pursuing.

Others are more upbeat. Some concerns about Chinese ambition derive from a cold war perspective that is no longer relevant, Gabrynowicz argues. The truth is, nations are now far more likely to become partners in seeking to exploit lunar resources. Holdaway points out that the UK and China are already working together in space, and says there is little reason to think both countries won’t be open to partnerships concerning the moon.

And even if it’s not nations but private companies, there could still be international collaboration, Listner reckons. “Some companies might form conglomerates to combine their resources to do it,” he says. We shouldn’t necessarily be concerned about that: private enterprises are still accountable to national governments and so will be subject to regulation – especially as governments are likely to be among their main customers, Gabrynowicz notes.

Last month, Nasa raised the game by launching a competitor to the Lunar XPrize. Under the Catalyst scheme, Nasa will share its experience and resources with private firms; in return it will get access to the companies’ designs for lunar landers. There’s a twist: US security regulations will make it much easier for US firms to co-operate with Nasa than businesses based abroad. So if Catalyst works as a stimulus to moon mining, the spoils will most likely belong to America.

Whether it’s helium-3 fuel, mineral resources or plain water – what Richards calls “the oil of the solar system”, because it is vital for life support and rocket fuel – lunar resources will almost certainly be used first to support further space exploration. It makes much more sense to launch a manned mission to Mars from the moon than from earth: that way overcomes the difficulties of escaping our planet’s gravity. Operators of fusion-powered Mars probes, crewed by astronauts from a lunar base, are the most likely customers of the first lunar industries. It remains to be seen whether we will be happy with any of that, Holdaway says. “Will this be acceptable to the rest of world? I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that.”

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science columnist

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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“I teach dirty tricks”: the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue