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Wired: Lessons Learned During A Year With Copenhagen Suborbitals
Author: Cameron Smith
Posted: February 17, 2014

Read the original article in Wired here.

Guest blog by Cameron M. Smith, PhD, Pacific Spaceflight

Just a year ago I received an email from Kristian von Bengtson at Copenhagen Suborbitals — Shall we work together? he asked. I eagerly accepted the challenge of equipping Copenhagen Suborbitals with a pressure suit for their first pilot, and went into a building and testing blitz, preparing our prototype suit, which I’d designed, built and tested between 2009 and 2013, for a visit to Copenhagen.

Before joining with Copenhagen Suborbitals my ambition had simply been to build a pressure suit and a balloon that would take me as far from the surface of the Earth as I could arrange with a suit and balloon that I could build at home; I was shooting for about 50,000 feet. Joining with Copenhagen Suborbitals’  bold plans and team gave my project a hundred times more meaning; now the suit and all my planning and work would have more significance, as part of the project to make space access easier and cheaper by demonstrating that it could be so.

The visit to Copenhagen went well, fitting the suit to the capsule, making crude but informative hatch-egress checks, integrating the suit with the seat framework, testing the aerodynamic properties of the suit in the wind chamber at Copenhagen Air Experience, and finally a 40-minute simulated flight in the Copenhagen University Hospital’s Trykkammer, or altitude chamber.

Although a sensor fault was at first suspected in the test, all went exactly as planned, the pressure suit keeping my body at perceived altitude about 5,000 feet (m) lower than the chamber altitude, and keeping my blood oxygenation exactly where it should have been for that altitude (a report can be found here); we also had no problems with suit overheating, carbon dioxide accumulation, mobility, loss of pressure or communications.

That 40-minute period in the pressure chamber was one of the highlights of my life, and I was thrilled to share it with my expedition partner of nearly 20 years, now, John F. Haslett, who’d accompanied me to Copenhagen as the suit technician. There are currently 87 steps to putting on the pressure suit, and it requires a trained assistant to make sure they all go well.

Back in Oregon, I founded Pacific Spaceflight; (best followed on twitter), an umbrella organization to contain the pressure suit production process and some other space-related projects (e.g. my work with Icarus Interstellar ( on multigenerational space colonization genetics.

I also built a team, now numbering six volunteers. Today we’re each settling into specific roles, such as control panel operator, suit-up technician, suited subject, and so on. We have secured financing to ensure that the suit for the 2015 flight test—in which a balloon built by Copenhagen Suborbitals will fly me to 65,000 feet while wearing the pressure garment—is built. We keep a bit of other money flowing in from private donors, to whom we’re grateful; a project like this rests on the selfless vision of individuals willing to donate actual dollars to a bold project.

What have we learned in this time? I’ve boiled the lessons down to three.

LESSON 1: The Best Design is a Working Prototype.

I have had and heard dozens of ideas of how we might do things, how we might incorporate such-and-such item into this subsystem, or how we might improve a certain function. While I value research, and do plenty on my own before building anything, I’ve lost patience with theory. My emphasis is on evaluating working constructions, not ideas. So, my focus has shifted to building rapid prototypes. If they work in principle, we can proceed to incorporating them in the pressure suit. If not, we disassemble and move on. I have dozens of drawings and hundreds of pages of notes in five years of notebooks. Many are good ideas and many are bad. The best are the ones that we tried, and either kept because they worked, or eliminated because the actual item did not work.

LESSON 2: Our Motto? Crude but Effective.

To facilitate rapid prototyping and testing, I focus on building crude but effective prototypes. Anything can be improved and refined; but until there is a hardware build and a test, I don’t have much faith in statements about whether or not something will work. And to work quickly, we don’t want to spend time scouring the internet (and then waiting for shipped items) or going repeatedly to the hardware stores for just the right item; we often cannibalize hardware from old systems, and crudely fashion our working prototypes so that they can be put to a test (our most commonly-used items here are zip-ties, duct tape, electrical tape, hose clamps…and various curse words).

I sometimes take this too far, and lose time for all of us by rushing a build, but on balance I feel this approach works. One thing I can tell you: it has resulted in identifying and then effectively solving every major hurdle we have had to date, such as maintaining gas pressure in the suit, cooling the suit occupant with circulated ice-water, and keeping the visor free of fog with a good flow of air from the breathing-gas delivery hose, placed near the visor inside the helmet. Crude but effective…refine later.

LESSON 3: There is No Final Design.

I’m not convinced than any two pressure suits ever built for aviation or space flight have ever been identical. Each flight is slightly different and even each crew member has different tasks and, of course, body sizes differ. In the same way, each time we do a test we have slightly different issues to tackle and solve, so we will for instance add a valve, or close one off, or use two different glove ‘builds’ on the same suit, and so on.

Only very late in this process, before the final build for Copenhagen Suborbital’s pilot, will we ‘lock in’ a design for final building. The 2015 test flight garment specifications and build will also be locked in, some time in early 2015, but even that configuration must be flexible and ready for slight alteration due to changes in the flight plan related to, for instance, weather conditions. So we must always remain flexible, and never ‘fossilize’ our thinking regarding ‘how the suit should be’. The suit should fit the mission, and that differs every time.

These are the essential lessons we’re applying now to build new subsystems for the suit, its control panel, and the flying seat, modeled on the modified-Kazbek position seat of the Soyuz capsule to be used in the Tycho Deep Space II capsule. We are moving ahead, more or less steadily, and with the new control panel and seat under construction we’ll soon be back to an aggressive programme of building suit component prototypes for pressure, mobility, temperature- and carbon-dioxide management tests. We’re thrilled to be the US arm of Copenhagen Suborbitals and we’ve boiled our ‘media message’ down to this phrase: “Lowering the cost of space access by building inexpensive but reliable pressure garments.” That’s still a little clunky (crude but effective), but I’m working on it…like everything else.

Thanks to Kristian and Peter for inviting us to the table, thanks to my team here for their volunteer work, thanks to our donors, and thanks to everyone supporting us materially and philosophically. We are going to make it work, and we’re going to have great test flights before equipping a pilot for the first DIY suborbital space flight with a damned good and life-saving pressure suit.


Dr. Cameron M. Smith is an anthropologist at Portland State University with extensive experience in exploration. He is the founder of Pacific Spaceflight building his own pressure suit for a personal balloon ride to 50.000 feet with a team of volunteers who joined Copenhagen Suborbitals in 2013. First mission for Cameron is a high altitude balloon test in 2015, from the Baltic Sea in Denmark.