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DIY Mars Debrief: The Meaning of a Pressure Test, final

Posted: Oct 25, 2013 01:02 pm EDT

(Tina Sjogren) Egress. The hatch is 55cm wide. The suit has to stay cool, the pressure must stay right, the breathing gas must have the correct flow.  Earlier tests have taken over a minute. That's not good enough. At two taps, Cameron must move fast. Here goes the final debrief.


Copenhagen Report:

The Meaning of a Pressure Test, final

Cameron M. Smith 02 October 2014


A moment later John, standing outside the mockup capsule, reaches through the circular steel hatchway and taps twice on my helmet. 


This is it! I reach up and back from my reclined position, grabbing two handles welded inside the capsule. I push hard with my feet against two metal plates welded to the capsule seat. I advance a few inches headward through the hatch entrance.


It's working! I hear a hoot from John and also Kristian, Copenhagen Suborbitals' co-founder and the chief capsule designer.


They're standing aside, watching me push out through the hatch. Loud clangs echo in the construction hangar as hard elements of my suit bang into the capsule’s steel hull plates.


I push again, hard and breathing hard! I want to be out of the capsule, that is my mission in life at this moment. Nothing else matters.


I’m gripped by an intense focus to get out, so I push hard again, almost violently, with my legs, coordinating this movement with hauling down hard on the escape handles up and behind me. My torso pushes out, it's only taken five seconds…I shove again, my pressurized suit shoving back against me as though my legs had springs.


Through my mind races the ghostly film footage of Alexei Leonov, the first human to exit a space capsule tumbling above the Earth in slow motion. I see also the body of US astronaut Ed White, also falling in place, it seems, rotating and twirling in the same infantile acceptance of lack of control you see in the footage of Leonov.


I remember the feeling of suspension, months before, when I tested the suit in a swimming pool in Portland, Oregon, the same tumbling tendencies and the pressurized suit pressing against my every action, as though my arms and legs were spring-loaded, and then with a final heave I'm out! I tumble backwards out of the capsule onto a table that has been set up to catch me.


John and Kristian are whooping, "Ten seconds! He was out in ten seconds!" someone says, their voice muffled beyond my helmet and then there is a strong hiss as a valve is opened on my leg fitting. The suit sucks against my body with escaping gas and then my visor is opened by John and I inhale deeply of fresh air.


A special place and at a special time


"HOOOO EEEE!" I yell, "HAH!!!" I don't have many other words. Wrestling my way out of a space capsule hatch in a pressurized space suit has been the most thrilling ten seconds of my life!


I remain ‘buzzed’ for a few hours after and the next day, even just watching as Kristian repeats the pressurized hatch exit, my heart races and my palms sweat.


Through the next week, the tests continue. John and I integrate our world, 'Project ALPHA', the building of a DIY space suit, with Kristian von Bengtson's and Peter Madsen's mind-meltingly bold project to put a person into space by their own welding, engineering and rocketry expertise. John and our team will build the pressure suit worn by Kristian and Peter's first pilot; probably Peter himself.


As the suit is stripped from my frame by John and Kristian, I recognize that I am in a special place and at a special time.


If civilization continues, if we don’t slip into a new Dark Age (every civilization so far has done so!) I think it’s nearly inevitable that humanity will migrate beyond Earth; first to Mars, then farther.


And we can no longer assume that governments will make this happen—it's taken a generation for the truth to sink in: we really did kill the Apollo missions, the human exploration of space. We really did quit.


So at Copenhagen Suborbitals and Project ALPHA (and many other private enterprises worldwide) we are taking the first steps ourselves, retracing exactly, and slowly, and hazardously, the steps that first put humans into space just over a generation ago. There will be leaps and false-starts and even deaths, just as there were in the invention of…well, just about everything from the wheel to aircraft.


But humanity is going into space and this time not just to visit, not just to orbit our cradle Earth, but for good and far out beyond!


Our part is to make this happen sooner rather than later by making it easier and cheaper; to do that we will show that human space access can be easier and cheaper than it has been so far.


Forget 'space' as the domain only of NASA or the Russian space program; both of those structures are now sad husks, each wildly out of touch with significantly reduced global economy.


Forget exploring Mars on a NASA expedition, we’re going to spend the next two generations just getting our crumpled country functioning again.


So we must now rebuild human space activity, from the ground up, privately.


OK…let’s draw up a plan. Let’s start building.


Late that night I take a walk alone among the towering concrete hulks of the Copenhagen shipyard, black towers blocking out rectangles of stars in the sky. When I walk past them the stars show again, blinking on one by one as I pass these temporary barriers.


I feel good, the whole satisfaction that I used to experience when dropping my keys into a dish in my apartment just home after a harrowing mountain climb.


"There," I used to think, "I did it," not really knowing whether the climb had meant anything or was simply an exercise of futility. Although there is a need for ‘futile acts’, like mountaineering or painting or writing a poem, now I feel there is a more immediate or concrete meaning to my actions: we did that pressure test for a reason--to advance humanity’s grasp for cheap and reliable space access without the Byzantine structures of NASA or its counterparts.


Watching the winking stars, I think, that’s where we’re goingand I’m helping us get there.


Currently the pressure suit project is run under the umbrella of the organization Pacific Spaceflight. This includes Dr. Cameron M. Smith, John F. Haslett, Nicholas Walleri, Washoe Magruder, Alexander Knapton, Ben Wilson, Kit MacAllister and Bruce Mataya. Cameron Smith is head of Pacific Spaceflight, a partner of Copenhagen Suborbitals.

The first project is the Armstrong Line Expedition, to fly a balloon above the Armstrong Line (65k feet) where a pressure suit is mandatory for survival. Scheduled for 2015, it will take Cameron by balloon to that altitude as a test of the pressure suit and its life support system. 


Previous entry, part 1

Previous entry, part 2








The suit has to stay cool...
courtesy Photo: Jev Olsen, SOURCE
...the pressure must stay right...
courtesy Photo: Jev Olsen, SOURCE
...and the lot must fit through a hatch that is 55cm wide.
courtesy Photo: Jev Olsen, SOURCE
Egress test (not much happens until about 3:10)
"Wrestling my way out of a space capsule hatch in a pressurized space suit has been the most thrilling ten seconds of my life!"
courtesy Photo: Jev Olsen, SOURCE
"OK. Let's draw up a plan. Let's start building."
courtesy Photo: Jev Olsen, SOURCE
Local TV video (best overview so far)
Not only is Cameron taking matters into his own hands - in this book he explains why.