'Homemade Astronauts': Local man builds suit to float to space
As an anthropology professor at Portland State University, Cameron Smith teaches human history and evolution.
As a hobbyist, he wants to be part of human history and evolution.
For the past 11 years, Smith has been working on building a spacesuit that allows him, or one of his colleagues, the ability to ascend via an air balloon to the brink of space. We're talking 60,000 feet, someday. It's quite a DIY project, huh?
Well, Smith hasn't quite reached 60,000 feet with a spacesuit-adorned human inside an air balloon carriage, even as part of the newly released Discovery+ show "Homemade Astronauts." It's not a spoiler alert, as all shows have been made available right away, but Smith's team, Pacific Space Flight, ran into some technical difficulties. But progress has been made, and he and partners will keep trying.
"We're in the suits, but we had technical problems that prevented us from going high," Smith said. "The other day we were at 10,000 feet, but had to stop shooting (the show) at some point. There were a lot of delays. You'll see us flying in a balloon, but not shots at extreme altitude. We haven't reached that altitude (60,000), yet. But, we have a major project planned for August, and I think we'll get into range."
The "Homemade Astronauts" shows are available to stream on the Discovery+ streaming service.
Self-funded and head of Pacific Space Flight, Smith considers his quest to build an astronaut spacesuit as his hobby.
"It's a thing that I'm doing out of my interest and passion for human future in space," he said. Whereas others might take up woodworking or baseball card collecting, he will try to float into space.
Smith, 53, had undergraduate studies at University of London Institute of Archaeology and Durham University (United Kingdom). He also studied at Portland State University and achieved a doctorate in archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He teaches a variety of courses at Portland State and has involvements with nautical archaeology in Ecuador and PSU's Wapato Valley Research and, according to his bio, other interests include Northwest coast archaeology, "evolution in general," cognitive evolution, aboriginal watercraft, use wear analysis and "the adaptation of humanity (and our domesticates) to off-Earth environments, e.g. space settlement."
Smith sees his work as being part of the move toward private enterprise in space travel. Elon Musk's SpaceX now builds rockets for NASA, and Jeff Bezos' money backs Blue Origin, two prominent examples of space private enterprise.
"There's a Wild West in space right now, and a million things will be tried out," Smith said. "It's like the early days of flying."
Smith admittedly has developed a low-tech spacesuit and opted to go with an air balloon as the vessel, mostly because of cost.
"I started in 2010 and wanted to get as far from the surface of Earth as I could with something I could build," he said. "Something simple, because I didn't have a rocket background, but I knew about balloons. It's a bag with a basket under it, and it's taken people up to 100,000 feet for the past 60 years. The idea was to get to the edge of space. Couldn't build a capsule, because I couldn't get it through the door. 'I'll just sit in a seat under the thing but it'd have to be pressurized and heated and cooled.' That led me to the suit."
The suit, he said, "is the same thing as astronauts wear when they go to the (International) Space Station." It protects the human from lack of air pressure and less oxygen at high elevations; like with a diver, an air tank feeds the person oxygen, and chemicals and pellets absorb exhaled carbon dioxide.
"I've had a couple hundred hours logged wearing the suit myself, and teammates have worn it, in a lot of tests," Smith said. "We've done tests underground or underwater. There have been a lot of flight tests. I've worn it in an airplane up to 25,000 feet, a skydiving plane in which the pilot is on oxygen and the skydivers go out at 13,000 feet.
"We paid the pilot to take us higher. The suits are working. 'Oh, my goodness, this thing is working.'"
He has also sent a pressurized glove/sleeve component in a balloon to 70,000 feet. "The sensors told us everything was perfect," Smith said. That was in December 2019.
"We're slowly getting higher and higher," he added. "It's a big challenge when doing ballooning, because just a few miles of wind can knock out your chances. Normally we get to fly once in a month."
The project's ups and downs are expected. Smith said just watch as Musk routinely informs the public when a SpaceX rocket blows up or fails. You have to accept a degree of error or failure, Smith added.
The two other projects featured on "Homemade Astronauts": Daredevil Mike "Mad Mike" Hughes and partner Waldo Stakes have built a "Rockoon" — part rocket, part balloon — to take them to the Kármán line, 62 miles above Earth.
Ky Michaelson is the first civilian to build and launch an unmanned rocket into space; he's working with his son, Buddy, and entrepreneur Kurt Anderson to build and launch a fuel-powered, manned space rocket.
Stream the show and watch the "Homemade Astronauts" in their quest to be part of human history and evolution. Smith sees a connection with what he teaches and what he does for his hobby.
"I've studied human prehistory, where have we been as species?" he said. "We have been inventing our way to survive since the very beginning. We use tools to survive. In the Arctic, they learned how to hunt and make snow houses. Those are adaptations. A space suit or a settlement are an extension of that. I'm interested in the human future."
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