Russia, the US, China... now Denmark to send man into space

Duo prepare to launch £41,000 rocket that will eventually fly one of them 100km high
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The Independent Online

The Soviet Union gave the world cosmonauts, America followed with astronauts and China eventually added its own Sinonauts. If all goes to plan on a floating platform in the Baltic sea during the next three weeks, a 63cm-wide rocket hand-built by two self-employed engineers will herald the unlikely arrival of a new breed of space pioneers – the Danonauts.

Depending on weather conditions and some last-minute fine tuning of its oxygen-fuelled engine, the Hybrid Exo Atmospheric Transporter or Heat 4 rocket is scheduled to launch from a barge off the wind-swept island of Bornholm before mid-September. In so doing it will bring significantly closer the day when Denmark – a country hitherto better known for the combustive qualities of vikings and roll mops – breaks into the exclusive club of four nations to have sent a human being into space.

Blast off for the 1.6-tonne projectile, which is due to take place during a 17-day window beginning this weekend, will be the culmination of six years' work for Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the two Danish enthusiasts who have dedicated themselves to the successful launch of the world's first amateur-built rocket capable of manned space flight.

Although the first flight will be carrying a crash test dummy, it is intended that Heat 4 will eventually take a human in the shape of former Nasa scientist Mr von Bengtson into sub-orbital space inside a capsule barely big enough to contain his body in a standing position and topped with a thick glass dome allowing the one-man crew a 360-degree view of a rapidly-shrinking Earth.

If all goes to plan, the 9 metre-high rocket will burn through its fuel of liquid oxygen and solid rubber in about 60 seconds to propel the craft at 1,250mph to a height of more than 100km where it will experience weightlessness for about five minutes before drifting back to the Baltic sea slowed by a parachute.

All this for approximately €50,000 (£41,000) paid entirely by donations of between 10p and £2,000 from members of the public and sponsors. The cost is about 0.02 per cent of the £290m average cost of a Nasa space mission.

Mr von Bengtson, 34, who once built the world's largest home-made submarine and co-founded the Copenhagen Suborbitals organisation behind the plan with Mr Madsen, told The Independent that their mission was driven by a desire to prove that the cosmos is accessible without the backing of a multi-billion dollar state space agency.

He said: "I think our entire budget would barely cover the cost of the key hole on the space shuttle. We want to show people that space doesn't need to be the exclusive domain of big money investments where everything is made out of titanium in clean rooms by people wearing white slippers. We want to give space another face.

"It will be a very big day for us to launch the rocket. We have made the project as open as possible. People make suggestions via our website and some come down to volunteer and work in the workshop. It has been a kind of collective effort. It sounds strange for a scientific project but it is like an artistic endeavour trying to bring it all together."

The test flight, which will gather data to ensure that the Tycho Brahe capsule provides sufficient protection from the heat and G-force generated by the 210,000 horsepower rocket, will be the first of four ahead of a possible manned mission within three years by Mr von Bengtson, who worked on Nasa's human space flight programme before becoming frustrated with the slow progress of the American space agency.

The Danish rocket's journey beyond the upper reaches of the atmosphere will be similar to that planned for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic venture, which is expected to begin operations by early 2012 carrying six passengers at a time paying $200,000 (£130,000) per seat into weightlessness on board a reusable space ship.