Text by Mandi Keighran Photos/Daniel Burgui
In a huge hangar in Copenhagen’s old shipyards, among junkyards, TV stages, art studios and rehearsal rooms for rock bands, a group of 50 self-proclaimed geeks are embarking on a mission to bring the world’s first amateur space programme to life. The project, Copenhagen Suborbitals, was founded in 2008 by aerospace engineers Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson (both are now working for different organisations). It is entirely crowdfunded and receives no governmental or institutional assistance. Unlike the NASA and ESA space programmes, Copenhagen Suborbitals operates with a budget of thousands rather than millions. Yet it seems feasible that they could send a manned rocket into space as soon as three years from now – and there are currently three candidates for the world’s first amateur astronaut: skydiver and IT professional Mads Stenfatt, 41-year-old space travel enthusiast and day-care centre manager Carsten Olsen, and his 17-year-old daughter Anna.
“I’ve always been interested in space travel, as I grew up in the post-Apollo era,” says Carsten. “Going into space has always been my biggest dream, but as a Dane it never seemed possible! Then I heard about this crazy group of Danish guys trying to build a rocket. I wanted to be a part of it, but they didn’t want me – I’m just a day-care centre manager, not a skilled rocket scientist.”
It was thanks to Anna that the father-daughter duo ended up becoming a key part of the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. In 2012, she successfully applied for an internship for a school project, and began to spend time working with the team. “I’m fascinated by space travel because of my dad,” she says. “Now, maybe there is an opportunity for me to go into space. My friends think it is very cool.”
“When Anna got the internship, I started to go along also, banging on doors, and eventually they realised that they could use me for something,” says Carsten, who now acts as a board member assisting with management of the 50-plus team, and is director of the museums department.
Following her internship, Anna also continued to visit the workshop a few times a week after school and on weekends. “I don’t have engineering skills, so I normally paint a lot,” she says. “But I am learning to work with different machines.”
When the team began to discuss who would undertake the mission to the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, Carsten and Anna didn’t hesitate to volunteer. “I don’t know if there’s something they’re not telling us,” says Carsten. “But there were only three volunteers!”
For the flight, one of these volunteers will be strapped into the rocket, and launched beyond the Kármán line, the notional 100km altitude where outer space begins. In total, they will spend less than one minute in space (the total flight will be around 20 minutes), before returning to earth – hopefully safely. “It’s not so complicated to get a person into space,” says Carsten. “The difficulty is in getting that person back down in a controlled way. This is a dream project, but it is a possible dream. Hopefully our next goal will be to go orbital. That would be lovely.”
So, how does Carsten feel about potentially sending his teenage daughter into space? “I have mixed feelings,” he says. “On the one hand, she makes me very proud. On the other, I don’t want to see her go – firstly, because she is my little baby, and secondly, because she would be taking my seat!”
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