Amateur Danish Rocket Builders Plan to Send a Human to Space

By Andrew Moseman | August 24, 2010 5:56 pm

TychoBraheThe fourth nation to put a person in space, after Russia/USSR, the United States, and China, could be… Denmark?

Denmark indeed. Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the leaders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, plan to fire a test flight of their HEAT-1X rocket from the European nation early next week.

This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future [Universe Today].

The capsule stands about 10 yards tall, and its top is a clear glass dome through which the standing passenger can enjoy the trip to space. (Or at least, try to enjoy it: The cramped passenger will have only minimal arm movement, just enough to operate necessities like a camera, escape hatch, and vomit bag.) The rocket would carry the capsule to the edge of space, where the passenger will be temporarily weightless, and then it will fall in a parachute-slowed descent.

Madsen and von Bengtson are both engineers, and the latter used to work for NASA. But their rocket project didn’t receive government funding; instead they built on a budget of about $63,000 brought in by donation. Says von Bengtson:

“I think our entire budget would barely cover the cost of the key hole on the shuttle. We want to show people that space doesn’t need to be the exclusive domain of big money investments where everything is made out of titanium in clean rooms by people wearing white slippers. We want to give space another face” [The Independent].

OK, but what about safety when you’re building on a non-profit’s budget?

The creators are members of the SomethingAwful web community, and have been posting pictures and answering questions there. In response to one question asking what the chances of the person inside dying are, they replied: “Unlike Columbia we’re not moving at orbital speeds so ‘dying a gruesome death burning up on re-entry’ with our kit has a very low outcome probability” [Wired.com].

(If you’re wondering about the capsule’s namesake, Tycho Brahe, he was a 16th century aristocrat who famously identified a supernova. Some Tycho trivia: He also reportedly lost part of his nose in a duel and lived the rest of his life with a metal replacement. We wish his namesake capsule and its builders a better fate.)

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Image: Copenhagen Suborbitals

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Georg

    The passenger will have to resist the acceleration force
    standing upright? Strange.
    Georg

  • Wesley

    It reminds me of the movie, “The Astronaut Farmer”

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDHJ4ztnldQ Joe Bogus

    REMINDER: Get Madsen to sign waiver.

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    “Tycho Brahe…famously identified a supernova.”

    That and he was Danish.

  • http://machinistblog.com Rob

    I wish them well and just donated $10 via their web site (which is very interesting and informative).

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Just because they are a non-profit doesn’t mean they can’t make money. Parts of Kaiser Permanente are non-profit and have billions in revenue annually. They just can’t keep it as profit, for, say, shareholders.

  • SpaceManSpiff

    A good point has already been made about the inadvisability of standing up throughout the acceleration and deceleration phases. Also, there is a *reason* for the clean rooms and boots often used elsewhere — to eliminate F.O.D. or foreign object debris, i.e. random pieces of crap getting into something important as everything vibrates in flight. (One of the most worrying findings of the Apollo 1 fire disaster was the discovery of a socket wrench in the burnt out capsule that had been accidentally left in the wiring. It didn’t kill the crew, but it spoke to shoddy workmanship of the sort that couldn’t be eliminated by just improving the design, and a lot of effort was made to avoid it happening again. )

    Even plane and helicopter manufacturers worry about FOD a *lot* because even at relatively slow speeds FOD can kill –sure, aircraft (and even missiles) aren’t assembled in clean rooms, but visit a production line, and you’ll see it’s kept very, very, neat to avoid F.O.D.. One big problem with damage from FOD is that its unpredictable from flight to flight: with FOD, you could have a perfect test flight with the dummy, and then have a Serious Problem, or even A Very Bad Day, with the first passenger. The way to systemically control FOD is being very rigorous about what goes in and out of the assembly area and ensuring scrupulous neatness in the area. All the kruft lying around on the floor and other clutter in their workshop doesn’t give the impression these Danes are doing that. Of course, what’s pictured could just be an assembly area for a dummy boilerplate model, and they’re being really careful where they are building the actual flight models, or they could have assembled their rocket elsewhere and are just storing it in the room pictured, or they somehow have come up with a way to control FOD amidst all that loose material; I really, really hope so for their sake. You may not need titanium and booties to build a human-rated rocket. You do, however, have to at least be pretty committed to tidiness.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    @Georg, the Universe Today post describes the passenger as “standing/half-sitting.” It’s not totally clear what that means, but hopefully it means they’ve thought of that problem.

  • Georg

    Hello Andrew,
    everything depends on the amount of acceleration they are
    going to apply.
    “Sitting” means, the passengers trunk will rest on a seat,
    only the legs have to be carried by the feet.
    But the passengers upper trunk plus head resting on the spine
    at say, 6 g is still a problem .
    Of course, if they are going to work with 2 or three g’s
    a well trained person might be able to do that.
    Regards
    Georg

  • SpaceManSpiff

    @Andrew, Georg

    The website claims a sub-3-g acceleration, which as Georg points out can be tolerated by someone who is trained. With such a small budget though, one has to wonder how much money they can spend, e.g. renting time on centrifuges. However, I suspect a manned launch may be some way off, so they may have time to raise the cash — their site notes, under the “Booster” section, that the booster has no active guidance, not even of the basic sort used on the last notable rocket design test-fired into the Baltic, the A-4/V-2 rockets of the 1940s. The plan is that a long rail on the launch pad will provide vector control during the initial low speed phase, and then static fins are to keep the rocket on course and prevent tumbling during the boost phase. They say they do hope to develop a guidance system, “in order to prevent gravity turn and to minimize the touchdown area,” and I suspect this will be a prerequisite before they put a person in: with their current design they will have only a broad idea as to where their rocket will land. The spacecraft itself appears to have thrusters for attitude control during the ballistic portion of the flight, but these won’t modify the overall trajectory and without guidance the passenger could be bobbing in the water for quite a while before pick up (fast water recovery isn’t cheap). I’m also concerned that apart from “a small emergency parachute” for the passenger, as far as I could see there’s no discussion of, or plans for, an abort escape system on the website for getting a human being out of danger in a hurry if something goes wrong with the booster before or at launch, like the launch escape towers or ejection seats used with current Chinese, Russian and pre-shuttle U.S. rockets. Even with the shuttle, the crew can at least get out of their seats and take their chances on the zip line. But how will someone who is so tightly packed into the Danes’ rocket going to get out in a hurry? I applaud their spirit, but I think transitioning from impressive but unmanned sounding rockets to human-rated suborbital flight is going to be tougher than they are publicly presenting. They may have thought of all these problems, but if so they need to honor the commitment they’ve made to share as much engineering information as publicly as possible and show evidence of solutions, or at least decent failure mode analysis, before I can take them seriously.

  • http://www.sinkers.org Mike Flugennock

    Slight correction: The Mercury and Apollo capsules used a nose-mounted tractor-rocket escape system to pull the capsules away from the booster in the event of an abort. Gemini used fighter-style ejection seats; the early Shuttle flights used, iirc, modified SR71 ejection seats for the CDR and PLT only.

  • Brian Too

    This thing looks sketchy to me.

  • Kevin N

    Does this even count as “going to space”? And the fact that the passenger will be “weightless” is not because he’s orbiting, but just because he’s in freefall on the way down. He’s weightless in the same way that I’m weightless when I jump off a diving board. I think one orbit is required for Denmark to be included as a spacefaring nation.

  • SpaceManSpiff

    @Kevin

    Anything above 100 km is space — you don’t have to go into orbit to declare yourself a spacefaring nation, as the U.S. established in 1961 when Alan Shepard became “The First American in Space” with his suborbital hop in the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule. It wasn’t until the third manned Mercury mission, when they switched from a Redstone to an Atlas booster, that the U.S. achieved orbit with John Glenn’s mission. And from a physics point of view, the freefall in orbit is the same as the freefall of, well, falling — being in orbit just means you’re falling all the way around.

  • http://GHancock Barry

    Unlikely to succeed in the near future, much more testing is required in order to entrust a human to what appears to be a rather ambitious & foolhardy approach to spaceflight.
    Many distasterous tests were endured by the US & Russia (not all publicised) before limited success was achieved – Techology may have moved on – apparently not the common sense !

  • am

    Actually, this was/is not a serious effort … it’s just some enthusiasts engaging in amateur rocketry and media stunts. The people behind this also built a submarine a few years ago to much media fanfare and what passes for nationalist pride in Denmark, a kind of “We are so smart and great, look what we can do better than everyone else”… kind of national pride that isn’t that different from the civic pride of a medium sized city (which is more or less what the Danish population is at 5.5 m people).
    The Danish media laps it up because there isn’t much going on here in the summer, it’s more info-tainment than anything else from their perspective.

  • http://www.solarpanelstruth.com Jarrod Ucci

    Residential solar panel installation.

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