Sunday, September 5, 2010

What a Day for a Rumfart

No matter how much I dislike the phrase "the sky's the limit," since it betrays its origins in a time when humanity was chained to the ground, the fact of the matter is that except for the space agencies of the United States of America, Russian Federation, and People's Republic of China, it's still pretty accurate. In aiming for space, we on Earth face what's quite possibly the highest barrier to entry we've ever encountered, orders of magnitude beyond even the Polynesian colonization of the Pacific islands by dead reckoning alone. From Sputnik on, space has been a game for governments and corporations - while we can only gawk, us prisoners of gravity.

The twenty-first century doesn't necessarily have to unfold the same way.

Copenhagen Suborbitals, a non-profit Danish rocket group, has recently come to the attention of the news - my only regret is that I didn't write about it sooner, when they were still obscure. Their goal is a modest one - just to build and launch the first crewed Danish space mission, and a private space mission at that. Copenhagen Suborbitals is supported by donations and grants, and with those the people behind it - many of them volunteers - have built HEAT1X-TYCHO BRAHE.

The rocket's first test was terminated only a few hours ago, when the attempt to launch from a homemade platform in the Baltic Sea - towed there in part by Nautilus, Copenhagen Suborbitals' homemade submarine - was scrubbed by a frozen liquid oxygen valve. Apparently the heating system, a $10 hair dryer, was not up to the task. Also, a bad battery had to be replaced. Still, the rocket itself remains intact, and the launch window remains open for another twelve days.

Twelve days to shatter the paradigm of space travel from 1957 to today.

HEAT1X-TYCHO BRAHE installed on its launch platform. Photo by Ellinor Stenby, released to the public domain.

Governments have traditionally been the pathfinders for new, experminental, untested, and originally limited-use technologies. The military applications of air forces in the First World War and mail delivery contracts in the 1920s gave the fledgling aeronautics industry the push it needed to keep on rolling to the present day. Likewise, governments invested the vast sums of money necessary for research, development, and proving of increasingly more sophisticated rocket technologies; today, with those lessons and solutions in the books, the doors are open for agencies with more limited resources to give it a go.

Limited resources on one hand, but on the other, limited bureaucracy - NASA is, regrettably, choked by its bureaucracy and utterly dependent on a generally uninterested government. Sure, the engineers and boffins at Cape Canaveral and JPL have come up with tons of great ideas - but the nature of government work is such that good ideas can get buried for lack of resources or lack of will to see them through. Not so for something like Copenhagen Suborbitals, which is fundamentally a hobbyist organization - though some of these hobbyists have worked with NASA and know a thing or two about rocket science. This is a case of people making something for the sake of making it - for the sheer joy of testing these frontiers, in the finest traditions of the human spirit. To me, the story of Copenhagen Suborbitals is even more compelling than that of SpaceX. Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen don't have the resources of Elon Musk, don't have the millions of dollars that are backing up his dream - but they're following the same road anyway.

Today Copenhagen Suborbitals is rattling the cage that we're all trapped in. Sooner or later, the lock is going to give way - and it's going to be an interesting time when that happens. It's been fifty years since the first flight of Yuri Gagarin, and here we are in a place and a time where non-profit hobbyists are zeroing in on a crewed flight into space. What might we see fifty years from now?

Also, if you were wondering, "rumfart" just means "spaceflight" in Danish.

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