Mads Wilson: Superterrestrial Explorations

Mads Wilson: Superterrestrial Explorations

Copenhagen Suborbitals is on a mission. The world’s only community-driven space program has tested five home-built spacecraft since beginning in 2008. We talk to a commanding officer, Mads Wilson, about which space shuttle plans are better, American or Russian, and he tells us why Danes are uniquely suited to launching this kind of endeavor. He also offers important cultural advice to help translate what it really means when a Dane mutters, “Good for you.”

What do you think it is about Danish people and culture that has inspired the first community-driven space exploration? 
I don’t know if it’s exactly about space, but Denmark has a very strong history of these spare time communities. We are a country where almost everyone is engaged in one or more organizations in their spare time like the local football club or a society of people who are interested in trains, steam rollers, restoring an old boat, or whatever. We are all used to having a job and then having your hobby in an organization in your spare time.

We don’t have the same culture that you have in America where you have a career that you are 100 percent committed to and you work 12 hours a day for the rest of your life on that. Here, you have your 9 to 5 job and then you have some other interest on the side.

Can you tell me about how this all began? How did it start? 
It began in 2008 with our two founders who are not a part of the project anymore. 

I usually say that this would not have happened without them, but it would not have been able to continue WITH them.

Peter built submarines and all of a sudden he decided he didn’t want to build submarines, he wanted to build big rockets. He put a blog up on a website. This other guy Christian was an engineer with NASA.

Copenhagen Suborbitals warehouse
Peter is kind of an artist-type inventor and he is not very good at doing the same things over and over again, but when you are building rockets you need to do the same thing again and again and again.

So in the middle of 2013, he lost interest. He’s very much an artist, very ill-tempered and impossible to control in any way, so he left the project. Christian left and then came back in a kind of consulting role after that but they eventually both left the project. They were kind of our face to the world so in May 2013, we needed to reorganize everything. 

How do you get the parts you need?
Being crowdfunded and being nonprofit, we need to do whatever we can to make use of what we can get our hands on. 

So many of the things we use are things that are intended for something else and have been used for something else.

Of course, we buy stuff also. And, we have some very generous sponsors, not so much money but mostly parts.
And do any of your parts come from old spaceships?  
No, everything is handmade. Some of it is way too difficult to do by hand so some work is done by laser cutting. We draw in 3D and a company cuts them up. The only thing here we haven’t made ourselves is the hydraulic pumps. All of the other parts are just ordinary industrial parts. None of them are rocket parts. We use dairy clamps extensively. They are used by breweries and every kind of company that makes liquids. They’re very, very useful. 

Copenhagen Suborbitals plans and explorations

What would you say is your sourcebook? Where did you start? 

We are not open source entirely, we wanted to, but for obvious reasons—we are building rockets. 

We would like to be open source because we want to inspire others, but we have chosen not to put everything out there because there is a big difference in discovering something for yourself and then just taking something that someone else has built and just building it out of their blueprints.

There’s nothing that we do that you could not do if you read some of the theoretical books and if you studied some of the old, declassified drawings from NASA you could do what we’re doing. So we don’t publish blueprints, we don’t publish source code, and we don’t publish detailed drawings.
Then where did you start? What did you use? 
Engine books, old NASA drawings, and old Russian drawings, but none of this is directly from the old drawings. We just used them for inspiration to see how they did it.

Copenhagen Suborbitals shipping containers

What are the differences between information from Russia versus the United States?

Some of the things that make the old Russian stuff interesting is the simplicity. Because they were really good at building stuff that was simple, rugged, easy to build, and also cheap.

It was not very effective and not very sophisticated, but it worked. So we looked towards some of the old Russian stuff when we look for simplicity and simple solutions.

NASA had been doing extensive research in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. They literally wrote the book on modern science, so we’re relying heavily on the research they did back then.

And then we test, test, test. We blow stuff up, we bang our heads against the wall, and then we blow up some more. Then, we try again and build something new.

The inspiration from this came from a particular engine, but we have not copied it. We have just used it as a guide. The most difficult part is to harness that power and to make sure that nothing breaks. 
How do you guys work together?
We have a meeting every Monday and then we have a mailing list where everything is discussed. Then, we work in small teams with each team being responsible for one part. People usually come in around 5 p.m. and most weekends. A lot of us are working from home or other places. 
Where do donations come from?
The machines and stuff mostly from Denmark because most people will not ship from the United States. We have about 800 supporter members and the rest of them are from, in order, the United States, Australia, England, and Germany and then we have a long tail after that. We have a lot more committed followers in Denmark than we have in the United States, probably because we have a blog on the Danish website that is updated every two weeks or so. We actually have some people from Poland, the United States, and England, that do proofreading and translation, but the problem with some volunteers is that they tend to be very active for a short amount of time and then they just disappear. We have about 40 active people.
Why do you think other countries are supporting a Danish space exploration mission? 
It’s the same kind of people that we appeal to all over the world. Especially engineers interested in space and science. And after they discover us, they get hooked on the idea and that’s when they start following and become our donors. 

Usually, we get a lot of funds during a mission because we get a lot of attention. We got about 50,000 hits on our website on launch day and 70,000 viewers on the live stream  But the rest of the year we are steady at about three or four hundred unique users every day. 

The fundraising part of this is something we haven’t really cracked. We tried Kickstarter and Indiegogo and all that stuff and it doesn’t work for us. It works if you are selling something and you can say once we’re done you can have one, but we are not selling anything. The only thing we are selling are the stories, the videos, and the other content we produce. 

Thomas Pedersen / Suborbitals

Thomas Pedersen / Suborbitals

Your goal is to be the first community-driven manned space mission, right? 
Right. We don’t care about satellites. We want to build a manned vessel. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with the legacy of Apollo and watching the space shuttle on TV when I was a kid. I always wanted to build something to go into space and that’s true for all of us. So it’s the dream of going to space even if I’m not the one going, which I won’t be. 

For me personally, the day we actually put a man in space will be a sad day because that means we have accomplished our goal and what then? Because the journey is the fun part.

After that, my usual answer is that we’ll just build something else. We’ll build a bigger one.          

What’s your projection? When do you think you'll complete your mission?
Five to 10 years. But it all depends on how much money we can raise because it’s not so much money for hardware because the materials are not that expensive, but it’s mostly time really.  We could move more quickly if we had the ability to hire someone to work full time. Time is our biggest enemy, not so much money for materials. 

Is there a difference between the supporters from Denmark and the international supporters?
Yeah, I think so. I think we have a bigger group than in other countries and especially the United States that are like, “Wow, these guys are doing this cool thing,” and that’s because in the States you have this self-made man way of thinking. We don’t really have that here in Denmark. 

In Denmark, there’s a Norwegian writer who wrote a book once and part of that was Jante which basically says you can’t think that you are better than anyone else. And that is a big part of Danish mentality. 

If you in America say, “Good for you,” it means, “Good for you, I’m happy for you.” If you say it in Danish it’s always with sarcasm.

That is very deep in the Danish culture—and it is changing to be fair in the past few years—but that is a very deep part of Danish culture that you shouldn't really stand out that much. 
Because we are formed by this, people are very quiet even when you sit at a bar. One of the reasons I love going to a bar in the United States is because you can go in there and you sit next to someone and you immediately start talking to someone and not because there is anything going on, but just talk to people. In Denmark, everyone wants to, but the first reaction will be like, "Oh, you’re trying to pick me up? What is going on here?" People are reserved, but they are not actually that reserved. You just need to get a little bit under their skin.

The most important thing I think for foreign travelers is don’t be afraid. People seem a bit distant but they are not at all.
Mads Wilson’s Guide to Copenhagen

Photography by Robiee Ziegler, unless otherwise noted. Interviews edited for flow and clarity.