February 14, 2022
Most days, Mads Stenfatt is a mild-mannered pricing manager who spends his time crunching numbers on Excel sheets. In his off time, though, he’s trying to launch himself and his friends into space.
Stenfatt is one of around 50 volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals, a group of amateur rocketeers in Denmark who are trying to launch a person into suborbit on a homemade rocket — and they’re doing it on a shoestring budget.
“We do it because it’s hard,” Stenfatt told Futurism. “Once you are in it, you start to realize also that the fun part is not getting to the goal. The fun part is constantly working on challenges that are so ridiculously difficult.”
The ragtag group of amateurs are brought together by their love of rocketry their and singular goal of yeeting a person into space. What they lack in funding and resources, they more than make up for in tenacity, inventiveness, and sheer force of will.
The group is currently hard at work building a spacecraft dubbed “Spica,” which they hope will be the first amateur spacecraft to achieve a crewed suborbital flight. Unfortunately, with tight funding constraints along with limitations brought on by the COVID pandemic, they estimate that it’ll take at least 10 more years before they’ll be able to achieve their goal.
However, Stenfatt says the limitations in resources and the hurdles they face are all just a part of the fun. It’s scrappy, tenacious, and downright dangerous — which is why we had to catch up with Stenfatt to learn more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Futurism: How did you first get involved with Copenhagen Suborbitals?
Mads Stenfatt: I was a skydiver for quite a few years before I got involved with CS. I remember in 2011, they posted a picture of a launch project where a camera was mounted just below the hatch for the parachutes. I could see by the way it was mounted and how the parachutes were going to be ejected that the lines could get entangled around the camera. So I contacted them and told them about the risk and what they should do to mitigate that.
Later, I got an answer back from them that was basically, “If you’re so God damn smart, why don’t you come join us?” So I did.
For a few years, I was more of a theoretical guy. I knew how to pack a parachute for skydiving, but I knew nothing about creating parachutes for space travel. So I had to learn the theory behind everything. We had another guy at that time who was making the actual parachutes, but he stopped in 2013. I looked around in the organization and no one else wanted to be the guy who made the parachutes. All fingers were pointing at me.
For the first time since I was a kid, I had to actually operate a sewing machine. That meant I had to ask my mother for her old lousy sewing machine. I started practicing on that. Since then, I’ve upgraded two times and have a pretty okay machine today that I’m working on at the end of the dining table in the living room here.
It sounds like you really had to learn on the go. You didn’t come in with this skill necessarily, but you had to pick it up.
I think that’s one of the big philosophies of CS. From the beginning, none of us knew how to do things, so someone had to learn. That means that if we realize that we’re lacking in some manufacturing method or technology or whatever then it’s okay to admit we don’t know it. So then I might say, “Okay, I’ll take the responsibility and try to understand how to do this.”
Sure, I may not be good at it from the beginning, but I’ll learn — and that’s very much the dynamics of how we work. That’s something we’ve seen so many times: the new members rise to the occasion whenever we see something that needs to be fixed
CS wants to send an astronaut to the edge of space. Why this goal, and not something easier?
We do it because it’s hard. Once you are in it, you start to realize that the fun part is not getting to the goal. The fun part is constantly working on challenges that are so ridiculously difficult.
Then there’s doing it on a shoestring budget when all the grownups — that’s what we call NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and so on — can throw hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at a problem. They can always buy themselves a solution, but we have to go the other way.
At best, we can spend a few hundred dollars on materials and then just be ingenious in what we do. That’s the fun part. We need to be different. One of the ways we do that is we overbuild stuff. All of the one or two percent improvements that the pros do to optimize something isn’t possible for us because it really costs money. We’d rather literally work with a hammer on a rugged engine to get it fixed than optimizing the thickness of the metal, for example.
A good example for that is the very first BPM-5 engine that we made for the Nexø class rocket. It came to us from a company that had used a machine to form it. Unfortunately, the angle of the exhaust was wrong. So at that point we had the choice of sending it back and waiting a couple of weeks to get it returned to us.
But in the end, Jacob, one of our really genius metal workers, literally took a hammer and worked the shell of it and got it into the right angle. It worked. I mean, it looked like hell afterwards, but it worked. We nicknamed it the “Franken-Engine” because it was so ugly — but it worked perfectly.
You want to send an astronaut into suborbit using the Spica rocket. How far along is it?
We have a rough design and are working on it. Right now we have put together the two fuel tanks, the liquid oxygen and the alcohol tank. The engine team is beginning to make the first components for the engine. We are also working on the test stand that we are going to use to test fire the engine. So things are moving along at a steady pace.
Unfortunately, we have been set back quite a lot because of COVID. So there were many months where we couldn’t meet up in the workshop. Regulations here in Denmark prohibited us. That’s set us back quite a lot, but things are moving on.
What other challenges does CS face right now?
We all have different big things ahead of us — but I think overall for CS, we have two problems from an organizational point of view.
One is people and time. This is a big undertaking, so we need manpower and people’s time. We will make Denmark the fourth nation to bring a person into space when we succeed. I think that many people today do not really appreciate what that means when you say that. Normally it’s countries like Russia, the US, and China that have succeeded in sending people to space. We are also competing with India to become the fourth country, though if we get the fifth place, I think that’s fine as well. But, we’re talking about a country with more than a billion people while we are just 50 people doing this in our spare time. That’s the gigantity of what we are doing here.
Also, we are constantly underfunded. That means we have to wait for each other to buy the next item that each of us needs basically. That’s also what makes it enjoyable because that means that we have to be creative in what we buy and how we use what we buy. For example, the prototype astronaut seat that we have made right now is made of scraps from rigging that was bought to make some lifting mechanisms.
I wove some of that as a lower layer, and then I added some thin cushion on top of it and that’s it. That’s the seat. That was stuff I found from another project I had lying around, and I used it all to save money.
That’s also what keeps it fun.
Exactly, because we constantly get comments and questions about, “Why don’t you buy this and that? And why don’t you use this incredibly expensive material for this and that?” We need to remind those people who and what we are. We are not a company. We are a group of people doing this crowdfunded.
Have you ever given thought to what you and the rest of CS would do if and when you do put somebody in orbit? Would you want to go to the Moon or Mars next?
I think we will take a day off.
After that, we will find a new, crazy adventure. I think I can imagine some people who have been a part of CS for so long will perhaps say, “Okay, that was fun. So long and thanks for the fish.” But I think the majority would most likely find a new challenge. What we’re doing right no, is so big that we aren’t giving it any serious thought at all on a planning level for CS. However, we are constantly asked that question, “What next?” What we are doing now is already something that would take 10 more years at least. But, I think many of us won’t stop after this.
Personally, I think the most obvious thing to do is to rename ourselves to become Copenhagen Orbitals — but it’s a guess and it’s not something that is being discussed seriously among CS members other than as a joke.
What advice would you give somebody maybe who wants to get started in amateur DIY rocketry?
It’s going to take too much time. Many people ask us halfheartedly and quickly, “How do I copy what you guys do?” But the problem is you cannot get to where we are today without going into it with a deep passion and intent to succeed. If you’re copying something because it seems interesting, then don’t. You’re going to break your neck in no time. You should go into this because you cannot not do it. You need to do it. If that’s how you feel about it, then by all means, go ahead.
Most of the design that we do is very easy. Roughly, a rocket is just a tube with a pointy end and some stuff coming out of the other end. Designing that is, relatively speaking, pretty easy. What’s difficult is to make and manufacture it. For example, I have a book here that contains pretty much everything that is needed to know about parachute making. If you read this, then you know everything you need to know about making parachutes. But it doesn’t tell you how. It doesn’t tell you how to sew together the pieces of fabric, and in what order and so on. That’s the difficulty you’re going to encounter immediately — and that goes for everything in this project.