An Exclusive Interview With DIY Space Travel Doc Producer Xavier Aaronson

DIY space travel might seem an unbelievably far cry from the rubber-stamped holiday cards, quickie door swags, and twig push-pins you finally tackled, but as a fascinating new documentary explains, it’s not (really). Art writer, producer and museum babe watcher extraordinaire, Xavier Aaronson, hopped across the pond to spend time with the founders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, a semi-new, but surprisingly unknown open source, non-profit organization that is changing the intergalactic game as we know it.

We sat down with Xavier to talk about his time in the chilly Danish capital and to hear firsthand why homemade space travel isn’t actually that daunting. Click through to learn about the fascinating future of this inspiring approach to micro space crafts, along with Aaronson’s space travel essentials and hot tips for where to eat, party, and play in Copenhagen.

Flavorwire: How did you first find out about Copenhagen Suborbitals?

My trusty geek bears over at Motherboard were brainstorming ideas for their Spaced Out documentary series and that’s when Copenhagen Suborbitals popped onto my radar.

Who are they? What do they do?

Founded in 2008 by Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson, it’s a non-profit, open source and entirely do-it-yourself space project whose goal is to launch a man into space using a homemade space rocket. All of those words aren’t typically associated with the aerospace industry.

They open their doors to space-crazed volunteers, share information by publishing their progress online, and bypass expensive technology by using everyday, off-the-shelf products to build a large chunk of their spacecraft.

The coterie of 20+ specialists that make up Copenhagen Suborbitals are revolutionizing the way people will one day look at space travel. If successful, Denmark will be the fourth country in the world to launch a man into space, after China. Not to mention, these amateur engineers could very well be responsible for galvanizing a new generation of scientists with a zest for spacefaring culture.

That’s impressive for a relatively small country that’s supposedly more populated with pigs than people.

Would you go up in a DIY spacecraft, or would you rather wait for Virgin Galactic to launch their service?

Hell yes, I want to go to space. But what’s the rush. For now, I’m happy to sit back and watch the first wave of space tourists take a crack at it. I can wait 20 to 30 years for the kinks to be worked out and for the price of commercial spaceflight to drop dramatically. And when it does, I’ll be that annoying guy taking selfies in zero-g, even if by then that move will be so played out.

For now, DIY spacecrafts are designed for one pilot and there’s no way I’ll float through space all alone. So I guess by default, that signs me up for a seat on Virgin Galactic.

Image credit: Malk de Koijn via Helena Lundquist

Making a homemade spacecraft is daunting. Were you more or less daunted after visiting Copenhagen Suborbitals facility?

I was more inspired than I was daunted. Their workshop is like an overgrown garage. There’s nothing precious or intimidating about it. Same goes for Copenhagen Suborbitals’ co-founders. No lab coats and fancy talk here. Kristian greeted the crew and I sporting a sweatshirt of his favorite Danish rap group Malk de Koijn while walking us through the basic anatomy of his space capsule’s design.

By doing it themselves and sharing their knowledge with the public, Kristian and Peter are turning something as complex as space travel into something that’s very human and seductive, leaving little room for intimidation.

Based on what you saw in Copenhagen, give me your most convincing argument as to why the US government should continue to invest in space travel.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is achieving manned spaceflight to ultimately send its Danish citizens into space one day.

That’s not even something the US can brag about today. NASA no longer has the capability to launch US citizens into space. They now have to ask the Russians to do that. That’s a pretty awkward request, considering the history between the two nations and their quest for space supremacy.

A solution might be to team up with private industry, which NASA’s begun to do by collaborating with SpaceX.

Should the future of space travel R&D be left to the private sector?

Absolutely. Private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Bigelow are developing the next generation of space-transportation technologies faster and more efficiently than government-agencies ever did with less geopolitical factors hampering progress.

Image credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals via PopSci

Talk a bit about the significance of open source (given that Copenhagen Suborbitals post all of their research, how-to’s etc. on their website).

Why be tight-lipped about such a colossal project that one can’t accomplish on their own. By making their journey to build a space rocket a voyeuristic experience, Copenhagen Suborbitals are able to excite space amateurs and compel space newbies to learn more about space on their own.

Once interest is aroused, fans will naturally want to get involved. Support ranges from crown-funded donations to emails with suggested improvements to current rocket designs. With absolutely no rights reserved for their work, Copenhagen Suborbitals offers people, with enough brains and balls, the basic blueprints to develop their own homemade spacecrafts.

The way I see it, the open source approach offers more invigoration to a curious learner than perhaps any science teacher could summon by shoving a book in their face.

Image credit: Spaceport America via Virgin Galactic

How important do you think commercial space travel is?

Commercial space travel is already a reality and its being led by tourism. The Russian Space Agency has launched millionaire space tourists in their Soyuz spacecraft. For the slightly less wealthy, Virgin Galactic has already been cleared for test flights and will begin launching commercial suborbital flights in 2014 for roughly $200,000 per ticket.

Space tourism has to be the most exciting luxury in travel and leisure. I can’t think of anything more supreme.

However, in my opinion, what’s more important than boldly going where many people have already gone before is the exploration of new frontiers like Mars and other planets.

This is one in a series of films for Motherboard.tv. What’s next for you?

I better emerge from this holiday break with some good ideas to pitch to Motherboard because I’d really like to continue telling stories about space.

How likely is Babes at the Museum, in Space?

[Laughs] You’ve got my noggin all tied up like a pretzel. Huh? Well, I once spotted a babe at the planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Does that count? His name was Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Image credit: Jupiter’s icy moon Europa via NASA/ JPL

Planet (and/or star/galaxy) you’d most like to visit? 

I’d like to drill deep down into Europa. It’s one of Jupiter’s moons and it’s hypothesized to contain a large ocean beneath its icy surface! Moon Gushers!

If you were traveling in to space, what would you take with you?

Bustelo. Space is not a place for sleeping.

Architect you’d most like to design your space ship?

Just throw some rocket engines on most of Calatrava‘s buildings and off we go!

Designer you’d most like to design your space suit?

Yves Saint Laurent, as long as my space boots come with red soles.

Favorite movie about space?

If I can watch Space Balls and Stephen Hawking’s Into The Universe simultaneously on split screen, does that count as one movie?

Image credit: Henrik Vibskov via superfuture

Best meal you had in Copenhagen?

Breaded minced pork patties or Carbonader as it’s called in Danish.

Best shopping experience you had in Copenhagen?

Window shopping at the Henrik Vibskov store.

Best nightlife experience you had in Copenhagen?

New Year’s Eve on the streets of Christianshavn. I remember some revelers shooting fireworks into the sky and drinking champagne while others were aiming fireworks horizontally through the streets and spraying each other with champagne. Gotta love the maniacal tendencies of those living long, dark months of winter.

Best DIY project you’ve ever taken on?

Is that a trick questions? Copenhagen Suborbitals, hands down. How can you top DIY space travel. C’mon now.