The Homemade Astronaut

Credit: Terry Manier

On his nightly walk home from Portland State University, in Oregon, where he is an adjunct professor, Cameron Smith often puzzles through the countless engineering details that will ensure his space suit is airtight. An archaeologist by training, the 49-year-old has learned the hard way that glued seams do not hold air pressure. In fact, they blow out every time. "It's a real thrill to be walking down the street and say, 'Eureka! I've got the solution.' " What usually follows is a stop at Ace Hardware to pick up a pie tin or a mechanical valve. "If I'm looking for something, they'll occasionally ask, 'What are you trying to do with it?' " Smith says. "Then I have to go into the whole spiel."

Smith's homemade space suit, which he's building in the living room of  his apartment, began as a rubber dry suit for scuba diving that was retrofitted with hose attachments. Then he stitched in custom-fitted thermal long johns webbed with cooling hoses. Now in its fifth iteration, the suit holds air, removes carbon dioxide, and is outfitted with communications equipment. Smith has tested it as high as 17,000 feet in a helicopter. This summer he plans to ascend to 40,000 feet, dangling beneath a massive hot-air balloon that he recently picked up secondhand in Flint, Michigan. Eventually he hopes to go even higher.

"It is an extreme environment," he says. "It's not being in orbit, but my objective all along was to fly as high as I could with something that I built."

The mission may sound a little harebrained, but it's also a throwback to a more heroic, bootstrap era of space exploration. The space race of today is among a boyish herd of tech billionaires — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson — clamoring for the heavens, competing to offer the first commercial flights. But amateurs whose passions run deeper than their pockets are making serious attempts to slingshot things, often even themselves, into orbit.

Smith is on the fringe of that DIY set. A serial explorer by nature, in 1998 he helped a friend launch a balsa-wood raft from Ecuador in an attempt to sail along the northwest coast of  South America. The pair's expedition ended a thousand nautical miles later, the waterlogged raft ravaged by sea worms. In 2000, Smith attempted to cross the Vatnajökull ice cap in Iceland. After three tries, he finally made it in 2004, in the dead of winter. It was the first such crossing.

Being out on the glacier under the glow of the moon felt otherworldly and inspired Smith. "I thought, 'I need a space suit here.' " The idea revived his childhood dream to reach the stars — at a planetarium, he would gaze up for hours. "I could not get that out of my mind," he says. "I wanted to go there. I wanted to see."

As a kid, he wrote to NASA astronauts, begging them to let him board a shuttle mission. Eventually he decided that he needed to make the trip himself. But this was not intended as a whimsical voyage, as if he were the Huck Finn of space travel; it would be a trip with a sense of purpose. Pacific Spaceflight, as he calls the project, will prove that space is accessible for anyone with a clear aim, an intrepid spirit, and a spare bedroom.

After eight years of late nights and weekends, he now has an all-volunteer crew on board — a few students, a former Formula One engineer, and the friend who coordinated the Pacific raft adventure. True space is 62 miles up. Smith's goal is simply to surpass the Armstrong limit of 63,000 feet. At that altitude, the atmosphere thins out into so-called space-equivalent conditions. Temperatures plunge to –70 degrees, and exposed body fluids begin to boil. A sudden loss of pressurization would spell almost certain death. "I would hear a hiss, my ears would pop, and then, pretty much, I would black out," he says. "So I am doing everything I can to make sure that this suit is absolutely airtight."

Smith hopes to linger up there for a couple of hours and then, ideally, lower his balloon back to Earth. As a contingency plan, however, he's packing a parachute and a personal flotation device. "I could have just hopped in a balloon. I could have been crazy about it, but we're going step-by-step," he says. "This is exactly how NASA did it back in the '60s."

Indeed, there's a long history of DIY solutions in some of engineering's most challenging projects. And not all of today's results spring from Houston or Cape Canaveral. "Oftentimes these garage inventors come up with pretty innovative solutions that escaped others," says Robert Braun, a professor at Georgia Tech and former chief technologist at NASA. "Space is a big place, and there are still a number of challenges to be solved. It's not clear to me that all of them will be solved by your traditional organizations using traditional means."

For Smith, he just relishes the satisfaction of bending copper tubes into coils or hand-stitching a space suit instead of staring vacuously into a glowing screen. He's never been married, has no kids, and doesn't really date. So his free time is devoted to the suit and the goal of making space more accessible for all of us, not just billionaires.

Admittedly, he's also motivated by competition. The thought of mailing Elon Musk one of his space suits has crossed his mind. Smith says that he would ask the SpaceX team, " 'How many do you want? What color do you like?' I want to reveal a five-kilogram, thousand-dollar suit, just for the hell of it." As Smith sees it, the amateur space race is already well under way. "It's this crazy Wright brothers era of people trying out all sorts of things," he says. "Most of them are going to fail. But some of them are going to work!"