The open source space race blasts off

Copenhagen Suborbitals wants to be the first volunteer organisation to put a person in space and return them safely. But after the departure of its two founders this year, and a spectacularly unsuccessful engine test this summer, the question is whether good intentions can ever conquer gravity

The wind blew a gale as dozens of onlookers trained their binoculars on a skinny white object in the distance. Fastened to the ground was a rocket towering 20 metres into the air and shielded with breezeblocks. The countdown ended, smoke billowed, the engine roared and flames flared. But things didn’t go according to plan, and soon the entire rocket was engulfed in yellow flames. The HEAT-2X engine test failed. But it wasn’t a failure.

“We’re still in high spirits,” explains Mads Wilson, spokesperson for Copenhagen Suborbitals (CS). “We knew there was a good chance of something like this happening. We just need to go back to the drawing board and design the engine a little differently.”

Founded by Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen in 2008, Copenhagen Suborbitals wants to be the first volunteer organisation to transport an astronaut 100km above the earth’s surface and back safely. Von Bengtson is a space architect who has worked with NASA and the ESA, while Madsen is an artist, inventor and entrepreneur who has also built submarines.

From their base on Refshaleøen on the outskirts of Copenhagen, 50 volunteers pool their skills and resources to accomplish their lofty goal. No one is employed full-time (Wilson works elsewhere as a data analyst) and their 1.2 million kroner annual budget is provided by the organisation’s sponsors and 1,000 individual sponsors from around the world.

“What we share is that we were glued to our televisions watching the shuttle launches in the 1980s, and dreamed of building our own rockets. Now we have the knowledge and skill to do it,” Wilson says.

CS is more than merely an amateur rocket club. To safely launch and return a human being from space requires a range of technologies, including a guidance system, a spacecraft for transporting the human payload, and parachutes to float it back to the earth’s surface. The organisation has experienced its share of successes – the 2011 launch of the HEAT-1X engine – and setbacks – the malfunctioned static test of the HEAT-2X engine as witnessed by The Murmur this August.

Rocket enthusiasts relax before Copenhagen Suborbitals tests the HEAT-2X engine on Refshaleøen (Photo: Nicolas Dalby)

Rocket enthusiasts relax before Copenhagen Suborbitals tests the HEAT-2X engine on Refshaleøen (Photo: Nicolas Dalby)

Human error
But CS’s greatest challenge has not been its technological resources, but its human ones. Madsen and von Bengtson’s tumultuous relationship finally reached its breaking point in February, when von Bengtson announced his departure. He went on to join the Mars One project, which plans to land a human on the planet before 2025, while Madsen soldiered on with a new board overseeing the project.

Madsen couldn’t hold the organisation together, however, and several key volunteers also left CS following von Bengtson’s departure. The writing was on the wall, and in June, Madsen announced that he too would be leaving CS. Von Bengtson immediately returned as a consultant, along with a number of the volunteers who had left in frustration at Madsen’s fiery and domineering temperament.

“Peter is a very unique individual, but he has no other obligations,” Wilson explains. “He wants to work 24 hours a day.  But he’s also an artist, which means he quickly loses interest and can’t cope when things get big and complicated. He wants to be able to oversee it all, but he can’t.”

The flat organisational structure of CS that so frustrated Madsen isn’t unusual in Denmark, where volunteer associations are an integral part of society. The organisation is also transparent, publishing the results of its tests online, where it keeps the world abreast of its progress.

“We really want our work to contribute to an open source method of spaceflight for all mankind. People have noticed how open we are compared to private companies that are very secretive with their records, but we want to share everything, even our mistakes,” Wilson says, adding that only the rocket’s guidance system is kept secret since, in the wrong hands, it could be used in weaponry.

Wilson expects the organisation to fulfil its mission within 10 years, though the time frame will be dependent on its budget. Additional money would enable them to outsource some of the more tedious tasks, such as welding. In the meantime, it is developing the rocket in two parallel tracks. One track is developing a small engine that can be used to test the subsystems such as the guidance system and parachutes. The other is developing a large, stable rocket that can lift the human payload.

CS is also working on a special escape system to get the astronaut to safety if the rocket malfunctions.

“One of the major problems with manned spaceflight is making it safe for the astronaut. Peter is continuing to develop his own rocket, and I’m confident that he can build something that can fly. But putting a man in space requires so much more than that. You need electricians, doctors and engineers. Going up isn’t the hard part. Coming down is.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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