Can I Make a Homemade Spaceship? Is DIY space travel possible?

Illustration by Slug Signorino

What would it take to make a homemade spaceship? —Matt

Depending on how you define “homemade,” “space,” and “ship,” you can get a craft into space, or at least a respectable distance off the ground, for somewhere between $500 and $2.5 billion. I realize that’s not very helpful for budgeting purposes, so let me tell you what you get for your money at the different price points. Rather than begin at one end of the continuum and work my way to the other (my usual practice), I’ll start at the ends and finish in the middle.

First, let’s define those terms. By homemade I imagine you mean something you can throw together in your workshop à la the Wright brothers. Where space flight is concerned this seriously limits the possibilities, so let’s include any craft constructed by anyone other than a national government.

Next, what do we mean by space? The commonly accepted threshold is 100 kilometers up, or about 62 miles. That’s the so-called Kármán line, roughly the point at which the air gets so thin that a winged craft would have to exceed orbital velocity to generate enough lift to stay aloft. In the interest of affordability, however, we may want to adopt a more expansive definition. More on this below.

Finally, ship. If we limit ourselves to a capsule with people in it, this is going to be a short column. Instead, we’ll define a ship as a payload—basically anything you can heave aloft.

With that in mind, here’s the menu of spaceship possibilities:

First, orbital human space flight. I throw this in mainly to establish the boundary condition, since it’s never been accomplished by any non-government entity, and only three governments—the Soviet Union, the U.S., and China. It’s not cheap. The space shuttle Endeavour, for example, cost $1.7 billion to build, plus hundreds of millions more per mission.

The private sector offers two cheaper routes into space. One is orbital flight with no people aboard. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, boasts that it can put a satellite into orbit for $54 million. The other possibility is suborbital human space flight, which so far has been accomplished by one craft: SpaceShipOne, a rocket plane akin to the old X-15. Cost: $28 million.

Suffering from sticker shock? Let’s jump to the Baltic-and-Mediterranean corner of the board and consider stratospheric flight. OK, the motive power is a weather balloon, not a rocket, and the highest you can get your payload is 20 to 25 miles, well short of space as usually defined. However, the cost is under $1,000, and the payoff is pretty cool. Last year two amateurs, one from Brooklyn, the other from the U.K., cobbled together ingenious instrument packages on the cheap (the Brooklyn guy used a mini video camera plus an iPhone with a GPS tracking app). The result, easy to find with a little Googling: photos and video showing in haunting detail the curvature of the earth, the thin layer of atmosphere, and beyond it the blackness of space.

Nonetheless you may be thinking: balloons are nice, but I want rockets. Fine. We’ve got one last option: suborbital instrument flight. I spoke with Ky Michaelson, driving force behind the Civilian Space eXploration Team, or CSXT, which he says is the only amateur operation so far to launch a rocket into space. They did it in 2004 using a 21-foot homemade rocket that went 72 miles straight up and then came straight down. Total time for the flight: just over 14 minutes. Cost, including a couple previous failed attempts: roughly $350,000.

Maybe you could surpass that feat, Matt, but I’m not betting the ranch, for two reasons. First, the 72-year-old Michaelson is one of a vanishing breed of self-taught rocketeers, raised on chemistry sets, hot rods, and Sputnik. Today’s whiz kids grow up staring at computer screens, not the stars. Second, the next frontier for amateur rocketry is orbital flight, a steep hill to climb for both technical and regulatory reasons—no way are the authorities letting amateurs shoot flaming bombs over populated areas.

Not to get all heavy on you, but that’s why I’m down on the prospects for space travel in general: it’s too hard. Sure, NASA wants to turn its space transport chores over to private companies, and there’s a decent chance that’ll happen. We’ll have plenty of commercial satellites, the occasional space probe, maybe a Mars mission someday. And there’ll always be bored billionaires willing to bankroll the latest venture into the unknown. But space tourism, popularly-priced lunar flybys, that kind of thing...sorry, I don’t see the business case. Then again, that’s Mr. Practical talking. Mr. Starry-eyed Dreamer says: Prove me wrong.

—Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

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Nonprofit shoe repair school passes along the craft and gives youths a profession


Block of 13th St SE Gets a New Name


Originally uploaded to Flickr by Martha Loomis
His name is John Matthews, but to many residents in Southeast DC he’s known as “Peter Bug,” a nod to a Volkswagen beetle he’s been driving for years. Now, in addition to his nickname, John Matthews will also be known for having the 400 block of 13th Street SE named in his honor.
“Peterbug Matthews Way” was renamed last weekend in recognition of the time and dedication Matthews has put into mentoring area schoolchildren. A teacher at Spingarn High School, Matthews is also founder of the Peter Bug Shoe and Leather Academy, where area kids learn the value of working while repairing shoes.
A native Washingtonian, Matthews has spent decades as a role model to students, leading by example through his work with youth sports teams and other community events. Apart from an annual “Peter Bug Children’s Day” put on by “graduates” of the Academy to help raise money, the place runs largely on donations and funding from its owner. You can find Mr. Matthews at the Academy, located at 1320 E Street SE or reach him by phone at 202-689-4549.

If the shoe fits, wear it. If it needs a sole, take it to a shoe repair shop. But it might require wearing out some shoe leather to find one.
"We lose 10,000 shoe repair shops every decade," said Peter bug Matthews, manager of Peter bug shoe and leather Academy Shoe Repair. "We will disappear if we don't do anything."
The shop at 1320 E Street South East is one of the nation's 7,000 remaining shoe repair businesses. There were 70,000 during World War II.
So Peter bug shoe and leather Academy is a nonprofit cobbler school to teach the dying craft to foster youth ages 16-18. He said he plans is to teach 30-50 students how to repair shoes and other leather goods such as belts, luggage and coats.
Students will also be taught to take apart recycled shoes and make new shoes either for sale in the shop to reinvest in the program, or to donate to groups such as Soles4Soles, an organization that sends shoes to Africa for those who need them.
The Academy will use any good leather or parts, and any donated or recycled shoes that can be reconditioned for sale.
Nonprofit shoe repair school passes along the craft and gives youths a profession


Block of 13th St SE Gets a New Name


Originally uploaded to Flickr by Martha Loomis
His name is John Matthews, but to many residents in Southeast DC he’s known as “Peter Bug,” a nod to a Volkswagen beetle he’s been driving for years. Now, in addition to his nickname, John Matthews will also be known for having the 400 block of 13th Street SE named in his honor.
“Peterbug Matthews Way” was renamed last weekend in recognition of the time and dedication Matthews has put into mentoring area schoolchildren. A teacher at Spingarn High School, Matthews is also founder of the Peter Bug Shoe and Leather Academy, where area kids learn the value of working while repairing shoes.
A native Washingtonian, Matthews has spent decades as a role model to students, leading by example through his work with youth sports teams and other community events. Apart from an annual “Peter Bug Children’s Day” put on by “graduates” of the Academy to help raise money, the place runs largely on donations and funding from its owner. You can find Mr. Matthews at the Academy, located at 1320 E Street SE or reach him by phone at 202-689-4549.

If the shoe fits, wear it. If it needs a sole, take it to a shoe repair shop. But it might require wearing out some shoe leather to find one.
"We lose 10,000 shoe repair shops every decade," said Peter bug Matthews, manager of Peter bug shoe and leather Academy Shoe Repair. "We will disappear if we don't do anything."
The shop at 1320 E Street South East is one of the nation's 7,000 remaining shoe repair businesses. There were 70,000 during World War II.
So Peter bug shoe and leather Academy is a nonprofit cobbler school to teach the dying craft to foster youth ages 16-18. He said he plans is to teach 30-50 students how to repair shoes and other leather goods such as belts, luggage and coats.
Students will also be taught to take apart recycled shoes and make new shoes either for sale in the shop to reinvest in the program, or to donate to groups such as Soles4Soles, an organization that sends shoes to Africa for those who need them.
The Academy will use any good leather or parts, and any donated or recycled shoes that can be reconditioned for sale.
Like your way of seeing this! Hopefully someone will prove you wrong while I'm still alive! :D
A home made intergalactic space ship can be made easily. Make a dirigible inflatable space ship. Float to the orbit and blast out of it. unfurl your solar sails which can build up to half the speed of light over 30 years.

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