Copenhagen Suborbitals has stratospheric ambitions — this bunch of wannabe astronauts want to send a person to space after all — and their efforts have not escaped the attention of the wider world (including WIRED). But thanks to their extraordinary pluck, the group warrants a closer look.
Copenhagen Suborbitals currently consists of 50 people — engineers, mathematicians and a kindergarten teacher — who are trying to send a person to space using only off-the-shelf components — the kind you would find in your local hardware store. “All of us have shared the same dream since when we were little kids,” Mads Wilson, a board member of the project, tells the audience at The Conference in Malmo.
The majority of the team grew up in the seventies and eighties, watching space technologies develop. “For most of us this was all a dream until 2011.” That was the year, he said, that the project’s two founders realised “you could go down to the local hardware store and find almost everything you need to put a rocket into space”.
Four years later, the project is in full swing and there are plans to launch the rocket from a small area in the Baltic Sea. Wilson confesses that it would be much easier to achieve if they could launch from land, but that regulations governing airspace prevent this. After all, Copenhagen Suborbital’s workshop is only around 10 miles from Copenhagen airport. “As you know the land and sea is fairly well regulated, but the air is even worse.” Wilson admits that while the chance of them hitting a plane is probably not that big, “the thought of it is horrifying”.
The little spot they have picked to launch from in the Baltic offers the company a loophole in regulations. It’s an old military spot in international waters. Swedish air traffic control is used to missiles being launched there, so all Copenhagen Suborbital has to do is let them know and air traffic will be rerouted. “If we had been drilling for oil or fishing for cod we would have be sued into the next century, but we can fire a missile no problem,” says Wilson.
And so once the rocket has been perfected, it will be all systems go. Wilson explains how the process will work. “We have a big rocket with a man on top, burn the main engine for about 50 seconds and reach a speed 3.5 times the speed of sound. When the engine cuts off, the rocket still has enough impulse to reach about 100 kilometres (above the Earth). Then the booster will fall to earth — hopefully with a parachute. We have had some issue with the parachutes.”
That’s when the really tricky part comes in. “Going up there is easy, and coming down… well that is easy as well, but making sure that the man inside survives — that is the hard part.” The capsule will tumble as there will be no air resistance. A ballute, which is a type of parachute, will kick in, but not to break the fall — rather to control the direction. All the energy that was put into the rocket, will have to be absorbed somewhere though, and this will involve an intense amount of heat.
Once the capsule hits the dense part of the atmosphere — about 80kms up, Wilson explains — “the astronaut will see all these flames licking up the side of the capsule”. The capsule will need to be able to withstand that and will then brake. “That will probably feel like being kicked in the face by a horse.”
The most dangerous part of the mission, he adds, will occur when the capsule is lying in the water, which could be up to 100 kilometres away from where it took hard. Even with a helicopter it can be hard to find.
It goes without saying that the person who is curls up in the capsule will need to be extremely brave. “Imagine you are sitting on top of an 18m rocket that your friends built,” says Wilson. In spite of this, the company gets applications from all over the world on almost a weekly basis.
It won’t be a random outsider, but it will have to be someone working on the project. “We have five internal candidates,” says Wilson. “Most of us need to work a little bit with our weight. In fact, the best candidate right now is a girl called Anna who is 19.” (She is both small and light).
“Usually I get a question like why are you doing that, it has no real purpose, and I answer well why not,” laughs Wilson. Jokes aside though, the project does have a purpose — it is democratising access to space and making it possible for anyone to replicate the company’s success. “Everything is designed in a way so it can be reproduced easily,” he says. “Imagine a world in a not too distant future where if a company had their own private jet, they could also have their own rocket. They would not have to piggyback on the back of space agencies.”
With private space enterprises springing up all over the world it is readily accepted among those in the industry that space travel in the future won’t rely solely on national space agencies, as it has in the past. Their decades of work have laid the groundwork for Copenhagen Suborbital and others in terms of the underlying science and technology, however. “What we’re doing is only possible because we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Wilson.
Copenhagen Suborbital is due to launch two smaller test rockets — both without astronauts — in just three weeks time. “If this works as it should then we will move on and build a big rocket and launch it in 2017,” says Wilson. “We will go to space — mostly because it is there.”