Meet the amateurs trying to put a human in space
Some people have a midlife crisis and buy a motorcycle. I had a midlife crisis and tried to build a rocket.” Morten Bulskov, an unemployed 44-year-old IT consultant, is explaining why he spends most of the week in a battered camper van parked in a former shipyard on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the Danish capital. From this unusual office, he handles logistics for Copenhagen Suborbitals, the world’s only amateur human spaceflight programme. Its mission? To send a manned capsule 100km above sea level, beyond the Karman line, which divides Earth’s atmosphere from outer space.
Copenhagen Suborbitals was founded in 2008 and is staffed entirely by volunteers — a motley crew of about 50 physicists, engineers, mathematicians and software developers. Almost all are men. Few are under 40. “What drives us is to be the first amateurs to put a man in space,” says Mads Wilson, the group’s ponytailed spokesman. “If you have all the money in the world, it’s easy. We want to put a man in space and build the hardware to do it. And the hardware we build will be just good enough. No more, no less.” In other words, they want to prove that spaceflight doesn’t have to be expensive or bogged down in bureaucracy.
More Button Moon than Battlestar Galactica, the group enjoys neither government funding nor academic affiliation. Nor is it part of a billionaires’ club with deep-pocketed investors. Its annual budget is DKr1.5m (£175,000), with part of its income coming from lectures and speaking engagements, the rest from crowdfunding. Some 800 people, mostly Danes, donate about DKr150 (£17) a month. The European Space Agency, in comparison, has about 2,000 staff and spends €365m a year on human spaceflight, while commercial spaceflight company SpaceX boasts more than 4,000 employees and raised about $1bn in January 2015 from investors including Google and Fidelity.
Half of the Copenhagen Suborbitals budget goes on renting a 300 sq m hangar that serves as the group’s headquarters. (Neighbours include a paintball arena and the site of Copenhell, the city’s annual heavy metal festival.) Men flit between workbenches, clasping wrenches and blowtorches. Conversations are punctuated by drills and hammers. “It’s the perfect man cave,” says Jop Nijenhuis, a 21-year-old Dutch intern who once lost an eyebrow trying to build a homemade rocket.
The idea of spaceflight on a shoestring raises plenty of eyebrows. “While amateur suborbital spaceflight is not impossible, it is very difficult and very expensive, so I am sceptical of the prospects of success,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
With so little cash, creativity is key. Copenhagen Suborbitals appears to have taken inspiration from Noma, the nearby restaurant that turned foraging into a culinary art form. “We have a tendency to collect stuff,” concedes Wilson, a data analyst by day. “Every time we see something thrown out, we think, ‘We could use that.’” Shelves groan under salvaged objects: road-surveillance cameras, a nautical radar and a touchscreen computer console they use to control the telemetry system that guides their rockets. “We got it from a Burger King cashier’s terminal,” says Wilson.
Since Copenhagen Suborbitals was formed in 2008, it has clocked up five rocket launches, more than a hundred engine tests and four iterations of its space capsule. Each launch is a staging post on the journey to human suborbital spaceflight. The group will succeed only when it blasts a manned capsule 100km above Earth’s surface. In theory, the engine will cut off after 90 seconds, at an altitude of 50km-60km, at which point the rocket will be flying at three times the speed of sound. It will return to Earth once it passes the Karman line. The flight will take about 20 minutes, with less than 60 seconds spent in space. “This ride will not be a pleasant one,” Wilson says. “Imagine sitting in a little tin can and being kicked up to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound and then coming down tumbling and landing in water.”
The group is unable to launch rockets on land — too many planes fly overhead, plus they lack sufficient space, such as a desert. Instead, they use a floating platform 125 nautical miles (231.5km) out to sea and inform the Danish navy and fishing fleets as a matter of courtesy. With safety uppermost, launches take place during summer. Falling into the frigid Baltic waters would probably be fatal at any other time of year. “It would be easier if we lived in Florida,” says Bulskov.
For its part, the Danish government seems relaxed about the group’s activities. Ulla Tornaes, science minister, told me in an email that while “rockets are not toys” and that “we need to make sure that our activities in space are safe”, the government has “no intentions of closing Danish rocket and space activities” or of regulating suborbital space programmes.
Spaceflight is inherently risky — and no organisation is immune to the dangers. In October 2014, one of Virgin Galactic’s prototype space-tourism rockets crashed during a test flight, killing one of two pilots. With safety paramount, repeatability is the watchword, explains Jacob Skov Larsen, an electronics expert. “We must be absolutely sure that the same big rocket, flying around three or four times unmanned, behaves reliably and in exactly the same way, no surprises. Then we’ll start considering putting a man on top.” Bulskov says they need to get to the point where amateur spaceflight is as risky as advanced base-jumping — “dangerous but most people survive”. They are well aware, he adds, that “if we launch the first person and he dies, the project will have a very hard time surviving.”
Experts agree. “They’ve done some low-altitude tests, but nothing to the altitude of a full-fledged suborbital spaceflight, and nothing yet capable of safely carrying a person,” says Jeff Foust, editor of the Space Review, a US-based online publication about space exploration. Wilson believes that a manned launch is probably five to 10 years away. Prospective candidates may not even come from within the organisation. The Soviet space paraphernalia that plasters the hangar walls is a clue to the team’s average age. And, as one of the volunteers delicately puts it, most of them would be ineligible on account of being “heavy cargo”.
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For many, though, Copenhagen Suborbitals needs to show it has recovered from the events of 2014. That year saw the failure of its HEAT-2X engine and the departure of its charismatic founders — engineer Peter Madsen and aerospace designer Kristian von Bengtson. The duo launched the group in May 2008 and oversaw its rapid growth and early success, including its first four rocket launches. But they had a rocky relationship, which came to a head in early 2014. Von Bengtson walked out (though he has since returned in an advisory role). Madsen followed a few months later.
Wilson says: “Copenhagen Suborbitals wouldn’t have existed without Peter and Kristian, but it couldn’t have continued with them.” The group reorganised itself after their departure. “Building rockets like we do, there are so many things involved and you cannot know everything,” he explains. “That’s why it doesn’t work if you have one or two people who need to know and co-ordinate everything. I know the principles of parachutes but I wouldn’t sew one.” Madsen, who subsequently launched a private spaceflight company, takes a dimmer view of the group’s prospects. “Disconnect the locomotive from the train and the carriages will go on rolling for some time, but they will no longer accelerate,” he says.
Some experts are similarly sceptical. Clark S Lindsey edits the HobbySpace website, which documents the development of the suborbital spaceflight industry. He believes it is possible “in principle” for amateurs to build a rocket that can propel a person to space and return them safely to Earth. “There aren’t any deep, fundamental engineering barriers to developing a one-person suborbital rocket that can reach 100km,” Lindsey says. Rather, Copenhagen Suborbitals’ problem is time.
To achieve its goal, Lindsey says, the group must develop multiple rocket prototypes and engines of increasing power, and conduct numerous unmanned test flights. “If they do only one test flight every year or two, as has been the case so far, the project will take for ever,” he says. Moreover, the organisation must maintain a team with the necessary knowledge, skills and drive to carry out their activities over a long period.
But the biggest hurdle is financial. The more time Copenhagen Suborbitals spends developing rockets, test-firing them and fixing any problems, the more money it needs. Commercial ventures such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have all experienced setbacks and delays, despite having far greater technical and financial resources. Lacking government grants or deep-pocketed investors, Copenhagen Suborbitals must work harder to stay afloat. “Their ability to convince people to open their wallets could be a greater factor in the progress they make than technical issues,” says Foust.
“It’s not that if we had a billionaire sponsoring us we would buy 20 times more stuff,” Wilson says. “It would give us the opportunity to put more time into the project.”
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Launching rockets has proved to be Copenhagen Suborbitals’ most successful fundraising strategy. Each attempt thrusts it back into the limelight — which in turn helps to attract potential sponsors and donors. “It’s our own little whip,” says Wilson. “We need to show our supporters that something is happening.”
The planned launch of the Nexo I and II rockets this summer was the most important test to date. The purpose of Nexo, which stands 5.5m (18ft) tall, is to test multiple aspects of the launch, from the telemetry to the parachutes to the recovery operation. On July 23, Copenhagen Suborbitals launched Nexo I from its pontoon in the Baltic Sea. Most of the team had had only a couple of hours’ sleep, having worked through the night, and Wilson says the atmosphere was tense.
The plan was for the rocket to reach an altitude of 6km before returning to Earth with a parachute. Instead it soared to 1,514 metres before plummeting into the Baltic like an asteroid. A ventilation valve had failed, triggering a cascade of problems, which culminated in the rocket burning its fuel twice as fast as intended. The engine simply stopped. Worse still, a computer hardware issue prevented the parachute from activating.
Despite this, the group declared the launch a success. “Everyone was very excited when it actually flew,” Wilson says. “The rocket ignited, it flew, it was guided and the engine performed. And then when it came down, it was like, ‘Oh, we didn’t get that quite right.’” The performance of the rocket’s guidance system was apparently a particular triumph. The failure of the ventilation valve meant the rocket flew too slowly — “it was literally crawling up there,” Wilson says — but it held its course.
The group intends to launch Nexo II next year, implementing lessons learnt this summer. “We know what didn’t work and why,” he says. “It would have been a failure if we had failed and didn’t know why. As long as we know why we failed, we have a chance to correct it and do it better the next time.” The launch has also given the group a slew of publicity. Its website got 21,000 visitors on launch day, about 75 per cent of them from Denmark and 14 per cent from the US. About 70,000 people watched a livestream on several media sites.
Christian Bason, chief executive of the Danish Design Centre, isn’t surprised by the appeal of the group’s unorthodox approach to spaceflight. “They [have] democratic values, participatory values, plus the principles of risk-taking and not being afraid of making mistakes,” Bason says. “It isn’t driven by capitalism or by the pursuit of profit or by government, but from the bottom up — by enthusiasts who have an entrepreneurial and technical interest.”
“Every time we’ve launched a rocket, it has been one hell of a tremendous experience and people have been happy for a year afterwards,” says Kristian Elof Sorensen, 41, a software engineer who chairs the group’s five-strong board. “That’s the real goal, sitting in a little boat at sea and seeing a rocket disappear into the sky.” When asked what he’d otherwise be doing with his time, he looks stumped. “This has more or less taken over my life.”
He’s not alone. This thrill of the chase explains why someone such as Bulskov can go from being a member of the “fan club” — donating a small amount of money each month — to working as the group’s security guard, to being its logistics manager. It also explains why volunteer Rune Henssel spends at least 20 hours a week at the workshop and sleeps on a camp bed when he misses the last train home. Asking whether Copenhagen Suborbitals will achieve its ambition and prove that amateur spaceflight is possible sometimes seems beside the point. “It’s just a brilliant group of people to be around,” says Bulskov. “Come the zombie apocalypse, these are the guys you’d want to be with because you would survive. We can build pretty much anything.”
Photographs: Robert Ormerod