Words Patrick Welch
Photos Alastair Philip Wiper
Think space travel and you imagine enormous, high-security launch sites, celebrity cosmonauts and multimillion-dollar control rooms – a sleepy Copenhagen dockyard on a freezing Saturday in November, not so much. Though it might sound crazy, we’re in the industrial area of Refshaleøen for the test firing of an 8-tonne TM65 space rocket, which it is hoped will one day launch an amateur astronaut into space.
A few hundred people huddle, wrapped in scarves and woolly hats, eating “rocket sausages” (hot dogs). TV crews circulate, documenting this unusual day out. The test is part of the ongoing Copenhagen Suborbitals (CS) space programme, a project that started in 2008 when architect Kristian von Bengtson and self-taught engineer Peter Madsen devised a plan to launch a man – specifically, Madsen – above the Kármán line, the border between earth and outer space. If they manage it, Madsen will be the first man sent to space without government funding, and will achieve a feat so far only achieved by the USA, Russia and China.
Von Bengtson readily acknowledges that it sounds like the talk of madmen or a young boy’s dream. “If you have at least 50 per cent of people thinking you’re nuts, then that’s fine. It’s very important people think you are crazy – it proves you are doing something new.”
Yet there’s no doubt the pair are serious. On the quest to fulfil their mission statement to “launch human beings into space on privately built rockets and spacecraft,” they’ve already achieved significant success: they’ve built the fastest amateur rocket ever flown and launched the first amateur rocket with a full-size crash test dummy in it. Not bad considering their team consists of two full-time staff and a group of part-time volunteer specialists, funded by donations, based in a workshop in a converted shipyard hangar.
Madsen – who will risk his life as the first test pilot – has no formal education but was already known in Copenhagen as the guy who built a submarine with his friends for just US$200,000 (NOK1.1m) in 2008. After that, launching his own space rocket seemed like a logical progression. Von Bengtson, meanwhile, explains that his drive comes from a fascination with space combined with the challenge of trying to build something new. “As a kid, my life was spent building things and trying to work things out, whether it was bows and arrows or electronics. My first experience relating to space was Lego Space – that’s where I built my first spacecraft.”
After graduating as an architect in Copenhagen, von Bengtson went on to a masters in Aerospace Science at Strasbourg University, something he hoped would be a backdoor to working at NASA. His wish became reality and he worked for them in Houston and Denmark, describing the experience as “very inspiring and everything you could dream of – awesome place and amazing people – but I wouldn’t trade any of that for where I am now. Most work at NASA is concept work – there’s always a new president cancelling whatever you’re doing.” Now, he not only has the chance to build his own space rocket – something he describes as every space fanatic’s dream – but also being the boss of his own space programme. “Just doing it as the little guy in your garage means there’s nobody above you telling you what to do.”
Despite their stratospheric aspirations, the pair are modest when it comes to the project. Von Bengtson has said all you need to make your own space rocket are some fairly common tools: an anvil, angle grinders and welding equipment, and a very large shed. “It’s actually mostly blacksmith work that we do,” he tells me, before adding that they’re keen to keep the project simple. “The more complex it becomes, the more risky it becomes and the more expensive it becomes. The NASA Apollo module contained 2 million parts, and basic maths tells you that 2,000 of those components will fail. Our spacecraft will have a few hundred or 1,000 parts. Our task is not to invent new technology; our task is to fly ourselves into space on a shoestring.”
It’s inspiring stuff and the pair are keen the world learns from the experiment, too. The CS project is open source, meaning that its workings are available for all to see and learn from online – so, if you want to discover how a space rocket works, or how they tested the estimated 4-5G forces on a ride at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens theme park, it’s all on their website and YouTube channel. Today’s test is even livestreamed on their website. With their generous “absolutely no rights reserved” tagline, it could only be a matter of time until they have imitators all over the world clunking around in their sheds, determined to be the next Yuri Gagarin.
In terms of red tape, it’s been a fairly straightforward ride so far because there isn’t much bureaucracy – owning a space rocket is not exactly common. Hence the duo have found getting permission and help for the project surprisingly easy. That said, the launch site is out of Danish jurisdiction, 32km off the coast on a purpose-built 10-tonne catamaran called Sputnik.
Funding comes from donors via the CS website, and technical advice and help has been forthcoming. “I can say that we have only met happy faces,” von Bengtson says. “When you call somebody and say, ‘Hey, I need to work something out, I’m doing a homemade space rocket,’ there’s a bit of a silence,” he laughs. “At least in terms of government agencies, everybody has been helpful. Of course, there’s always a lot of scepticism but that gives you energy to try and prove people wrong.”
He tells me that one in 60 space crews doesn’t come back alive, which begs the question, why are the pair willing to let Madsen risk his life? “People forget that the human body can do extraordinary things. Nobody wants to risk anything anymore, but it wasn’t like that 100 years ago when people were learning to fly, or during the space race,” says von Bengtson.
The rocket test is successful. With an almighty roar, the rocket fires up, creating a surge of flames and a smell of burnt fuel, followed by a round of applause. The success of the TM65 test marks another step on the road to the end goal. So what’s next?
Von Bengtson says they’re not in a hurry, and will complete further test launches and develop different rocket designs. Ultimate lift off, he hopes, will happen within the next five to 10 years. Then, Copenhagen may join Cape Canaveral in space-travel history.