How Denmark Inspires

Meet the Copenhagen Suborbitals, Denmark’s Home-Grown Space Travelers


By Helen Russell

Denmark recently sent its first astronaut to the International Space Station, but Andreas Mogensen isn’t the only Dane with sights set firmly on the stars. Copenhagen Suborbitals [] is a Danish not-for-profit aerospace organisation that is funded entirely by donations from all over the world. A team of 50 self-professed “geeks” with day jobs as doctors, welders, computer systems workers, even kindergarten teachers, spend their free time building and flying rockets. And they hope that one day soon they’ll build one big enough to send a man—or a woman—into space.

It all started when submarine engineer and space enthusiast Peter Madsen met up with aerospace scientist Kristian von Bengtson back in 2008. Both had an inkling that space could be made more accessible for all, and that with the right attitude and expertise, it could be done on a shoestring. Over coffee one weekend they sketched out a plan for a rocket and Copenhagen Suborbitals was born. The pair soon gathered fellow amateur enthusiasts around them and set to work, running their first test flight two years later. Since then they have notched up successes with the most powerful amateur rocket ever flown and the first amateur rocket launch with a full-sized crash-test dummy in it.

Copenhagen Suborbitals’ philosophy is all about using simple solutions for complex problems. Cork from the nearby carpet shop was used as a heat shield in an early rocket and a DIY spacesuit was made with valves and pipes from the local hardware shop. When it came to testing out the astronaut's capacity for g-forces, the team was similarly ingenious. Having discovered that the Vertigo ride at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens had the same g-force as their rocket, they hired the ride for a day and ran tests in the tourist hot spot.
Now the Suborbitals are working toward their first (wo)manned space flight above the Kármán Line, the border between Earth and outer space. If they manage it, they will be the first amateurs to make it into space without government funding.

“For this we need an engine capable of producing 10 metric tonnes of thrust,” explains Copenhagen Suborbitals’ elected spokesman and fellow space enthusiast, Mads Wilson. “The engine needs to be big enough to lift the powerful Spica rocket that we’re also building from scratch, as well as a capsule that will contain our first Copenhagen Suborbitals astronaut.” Wilson and the team hope to do their first run of Spica unmanned in 2016. “Then we’ll need two successful test runs, where everything goes perfectly, before we send someone up into space,” he says. There are currently a few candidates on the short list for Copenhagen Suborbitals’ first manned flight, including Anna Guðrunsdóttir Olsen, 18, a student, and her father, Carsten Olsen, 42, a kindergarten teacher. The successful candidate will be announced later this year.

“The person we choose needs to be really fit, physically and mentally,” says Wilson. “They’ll be going from stationary to three and a half times the speed of sound in just 60 seconds. And going up won’t even be the worst part. When they come down, they’ll be tumbling, weightless, basically sitting in that proverbial tin can.”

Find out more and follow the progress of the Copenhagen Suborbitals.

Images—by Hélène Tindon, Thomas Pedersen and Jev Olsen— courtesy of Copenhagen Suborbitals