Duct tape, cork tiles, plastic valves from the local hardware store and a DIY spacesuit are just some of the items strewn around the old submarine berth in Copenhagen’s dockyards. Think “space program” and you probably imagine high-security rocket launches and multibillion-dollar technology. What you may not picture is a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs tinkering with an 8 tonne rocket that may one day launch a man into space.
Peter Madsen was 10 years old when he watched the US space shuttle Columbia’s first flight on TV in 1981.
“I remember being fascinated by the white plumes of steam and the shockwaves of the hydrogen fuel,” Madsen says. “From then on, I was hooked.”
This was a problem for a boy living in Roskilde, Denmark.
“There isn’t exactly a Cape Canaveral out here, so I got into amateur submarines instead — they’re a lot like rockets in many ways,” says Madsen, who became famous for building a 40 tonne sub with friends for just US$199,400 in 2008. “I did a newspaper interview at the time and the journalist asked what I was doing next, so I said I wanted to build a rocket. As soon as the article came out, this guy e-mailed, saying he could help.”
Aerospace scientist and fellow Copenhagener Kristian von Bengtson was working on NASA’s Constellation program, but had become disillusioned by the notion of space as big business.
“Every decision had to go through boards, sub-groups and committees — it was more bureaucratic and political than I’d expected and when a new president came into power, projects got scrapped,” Bengtson says. “I knew of Peter’s work already, so when I read he wanted to go into space, I got in touch.”
The pair met for coffee and within 10 minutes had sketched out a plan for a rocket they thought they could build — on a shoestring.
“We wanted to put a human in space in a new way and without lots of money — to be in the workshop every day, instead of in meetings with banks,” Madsen says.
The not-for-profit Copenhagen Suborbitals was born.
“We started work straight away in a submarine hangar and ran a test flight two years later,” Madsen says.
Since then, they have notched up successes with the most powerful amateur rocket ever flown and the first amateur rocket launch with a full-size crash test dummy in it. Now, they are working toward their first manned space flight above the Karman line, the border between Earth and outer space. If they manage it, they will be the first amateurs to make it into space without government funding.
In the last month, Bengtson and Madsen have passed another major milestone — creating their DIY spacesuit for a volunteer astronaut to wear on the rocket’s first flight. Whereas a NASA-style spacesuit can set you back in the region of US$12 million, Copenhagen Suborbitals needed to create something safe and durable on a fraction of the budget.
“We have around 1,000 supporters, each paying 100 kroner a month [US$18], as well as 46 part-time volunteers,” Madsen says.
“The DIY spacesuit is made with valves and pipes from the hardware shop, because there was nothing to suggest these wouldn’t work just as well for our purpose as some fancy equipment,” Bengtson says. “We use a lot of stuff you can buy in the supermarket or local shops.”
He is using cork from the nearby carpet store as a heat shield in the rocket.
Without access to specialized space facilities, the team trooped down to Copenhagen hospital and persuaded bosses to let them have a go in a hyperbaric chamber, normally used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness.
“We created 0.6 bars of pressure — the equivalent of going up to 13,000 feet [3,962m], and luckily, the suit worked,” he said.
The Suborbitals were similarly thrifty when it came to testing out the astronaut’s capacity for g-forces.
“We didn’t have the money to hire NASA’s facilities, so we went to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and tested the g-forces on fairground rides instead,” Bengtson says. “Turns out the Vertigo ride has exactly the same g-force as our rockets, so we hired it for a day.”