By day, Cameron Smith teaches anthropology at Portland
âdigging 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
, 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. 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
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
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
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
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.