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. Itâs called the Armstrong line. And this gets you to an atmospheric pressure thatâs so low that people begin to call it, for engineering purposes, space-equivalent conditions.
Youâve done archaeological expeditions all over the world. Whatâs 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 didnât tell anybody about it. I thought, âPeople are going to think Iâm crazy.â 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. Itâs not like being in the Arctic, but itâs something I can do thatâs 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, itâs 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 whatâs 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 whatâs called a pressure-restraint garment. With that I can reach the few controls I need.
The next layer is the coverall. Itâs flame-proof. It is orange so people can see it if I need to be rescued. Of course, there is the helmet. Thatâs the one thing I didnât 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 Iâll get around to adding it all up. I believe itâs less than $5,000. And 99 percent of that is materials that didnât work.
When will you go into space?
[Next] summer Iâll go back to Copenhagen. Iâm building the suit for Copenhagen Suborbitalâs astronaut to fly. The suit needs to fit into their capsule, which is a very, very delicate operation. Thatâs 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 manâs game. You want to go up with Richard Branson, itâs $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, Iâve looked carefully at human prehistory and human civilizations, and itâs 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 theyâre 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 youâve got to go to space. Youâve got to be able to settle space and move away. Itâs just like Carl Sagan said: If youâre a one-planet species, your time is numbered.