The Great Danes of Space

Wired welcomed a new author to its Science Blogs on Monday afternoon — Kristian von Bengtson, an aerospace engineer and co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals. His three year-old group is working on ways of achieving suborbital spaceflights with rockets. As its website indicates, the effort is supported entirely by private donations, sponsors, and the work of part-time specialists.

von Bengtson’s discusses in his inaugural piece what makes their effort unique in today’s environment:

This is not a business, nor is it an attempt to race against being the first doing private space travel in Europe. It is truly a project pushing the limits of a small group of individuals.

Human space flight has always been “untouchable.” It has been for big companies or governments only to take on. But Copenhagen Suborbitals would like to show the world that it can be done by thinking unconventionally in all areas, not only in terms of research and development but also on the financial side. We want to find the old spirit of the pioneer and entrepreneur in ourselves and in the process hopefully inspire as many as possible.

Amid the uncertainty about the start of commercial suborbital flights and gloom surrounding the termination of NASA’s shuttle program, there’s something refreshing about Copenhagen Suborbitals. It represents the power of innovative dynamism — as von Bengtson observes, spaceflight is no longer a realm restricted to large corporations or nation states. Their effort is reminiscent of the Wright Brothers at Kill Devil Hills — a group of people with a dream getting together, enduring the trials and tribulations of working on a small budget to achieve something great, and ultimately changing the world.

In a TED Talk late last year, von Bengtson discussed how the Danish legal system has various rules and standards relating to airplanes and fast cars that could present obstacles to their objectives, yet “nothing about standards of a homemade space rocket.” This and other factors led them to adopt their current approach, which involves launching from a catamaran platform in the Baltic Sea. Their flexibility, he notes, necessitates a high level of responsibility to ensure their experiences do not hinder future efforts by others.

von Bengtson plans to use his Rocket Shop blog to chronicle their endeavors. Whether or not they succeed is an open question, but Copenhagen Suborbitals will likely inspire others to follow in their footsteps. A multitude of these projects could yield great benefits for both aerospace research and potential customers who could get a chance to see Earth from the heavens. And although Copenhagen Suborbitals is not a business, it doesn’t require much imagination to see a lucrative business model for a future competitive spaceflight alternative to companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.

We may not be living in a time of flying cars and personal rocket ships just yet, but the work done by Copenhagen Suborbitals puts us all one step closer to that dream.