By day, Cameron Smith teaches anthropology at Portland State University—digging fossils in Africa, launching solo voyages in the Arctic or sailing primitive vessels in the open ocean. By night, Smith, 46, is feverishly building a DIY space suit. Working in concert with a Danish nonprofit aerospace organization called Copenhagen Suborbitals, Smith wants to democratize space travel. He has turned his Pearl District apartment into a workshop where a homemade space suit nearly five years in the making lies on a folding table. Next year, he plans to balloon up to 63,000 feet to test the suit. The year after that, the Danes will send it up to 63 miles. And after that?
WW: What are you trying to achieve?
Cameron Smith: Our mission is bringing down the cost of space access. My flight will be a test of the suit and the life-support system, and that will be by balloon. And the point of that is to go 63,000 feet. It’s called the Armstrong line. And this gets you to an atmospheric pressure that’s so low that people begin to call it, for engineering purposes, space-equivalent conditions.
You’ve done archaeological expeditions all over the world. What’s the connection to space travel?
I was born in 1967, when the space race was in full swing. We lived in Texas and my folks took us to NASA and the Johnson Space Center when I was 10. We saw the rockets, and like a lot of kids at that time, I was kind of hooked on this sort of mind-boggling thing, to put people into space.
How long have you been working toward going into space?
Since 2008. For about three years, I didn’t tell anybody about it. I thought, “People are going to think I’m crazy.” But I can build a balloon. I can build a pressure suit. And I can ride underneath the balloon. This is something I can [build] at home. I can work on it every night. It’s not like being in the Arctic, but it’s something I can do that’s sort of connected to this expedition world that I was craving.
Is there a DIY guide to building a pressurized suit?
No. I learned how to build it from by looking at a lot of patents. Everything that NASA did is public. I learned that a suit like this has many complications. On the other hand, it’s relatively simple.
Where did you buy the components? Are they household items?
A lot are. There are several layers to a pressure suit. The first layer is basically a pair of long johns, and sewn into them is about 30 feet of tubing that plugs into the ship and circulates cold water.
The second layer is what’s called the gas-retention layer. When we plug it in and we pump gas through the suit, it balloons up and it gives you the physiological pressure you need to continue to breathe.
The third layer is what’s called a pressure-restraint garment. With that I can reach the few controls I need.
The next layer is the coverall. It’s flame-proof. It is orange so people can see it if I need to be rescued. Of course, there is the helmet. That’s the one thing I didn’t manufacture myself. That was from eBay. It is a Russian high-altitude aviation helmet.
How much time and money have you spent so far?
Someday I’ll get around to adding it all up. I believe it’s less than $5,000. And 99 percent of that is materials that didn’t work.
When will you go into space?
[Next] summer I’ll go back to Copenhagen. I’m building the suit for Copenhagen Suborbital’s astronaut to fly. The suit needs to fit into their capsule, which is a very, very delicate operation. That’s 2015. The summer of 2014, I plan to fly the balloon. And the arrangement now is that they will build the balloon in Copenhagen.
Why build your own suit?
You can buy a used pressure suit from the Russians for something like $20,000 or a new one for $50,000. The American suit is much more expensive. What I would like to do with this is show that it can be built for perhaps a tenth of that cost.
Right now, space travel is a rich man’s game. You want to go up with Richard Branson, it’s $250,000. There are going to be a lot of terrible disasters as the technology is worked out to make this cheaper, but essentially the idea is that going to space should be cheap. It should be widely available rather than heavily restricted.
Why should it be widely available?
As an archaeologist, I’ve looked carefully at human prehistory and human civilizations, and it’s a bleak picture. All civilizations have crashed. The reason I have a job is that ancient civilizations fall apart, and so we study them now that they’re museum exhibits.
Somebody said recently that civilization has a failure rate of about 99 percent. I think civilization is a wonderful thing, and I think that to preserve it you’ve got to go to space. You’ve got to be able to settle space and move away. It’s just like Carl Sagan said: If you’re a one-planet species, your time is numbered.