“Amateurs at times turn out faster, more flexible and adaptable than Roscosmos or even NASA”

Anthropologist Denis Sivkov on Russian astronautics enthusiasts’ projects

Space exploration is usually considered a business that’s within the state’s power only, as there is a stereotype that it requires big resources. In fact, it is a myth and an ideology, anthropologist Denis Sivkov claims. There are quite many successful space projects in the world launched by amateurs, and at least three of them have been completed nowadays in Russia. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Sivkov talks about how to participate in space exploration not being a specialist, who is already involved in it and what it requires.

“Space exploration can be a doing of ordinary people”

How can individuals and their personal initiatives be embedded into the process of space exploration?

Astronautics, in fact, as a desire to reach space and objects in it has always been to a certain degree linked with enthusiasm and popularisation. We are not always able to see that astronautics is ordinary people’s doing because of the creation of myths and the idealisation of space exploration. But look at how great people such as Korolyov and Oberth (Editor’s Note: Hermann Oberth is a German scientist who dealt with astronautics and rocket engineering, one of the founding fathers of rocketry) started off in basements and garages. Then, including through repressive or commercial arms, their activity, their discoveries and interest were appropriated by the state, the ideological machine that made astronautics its own. Of course, later, it was said that those who deal with space exploration — both engineers and astronauts — weren't ordinary people at all, it was heroes and they represented either a state (the USA, USSR, China) or all humankind. Astronautics is often said to be an affair of all humankind, not individuals.

On such an ideological agenda, we couldn’t tell private enthusiasm and initiative. Commercial astronautics changed a lot. In the noughties in the USA, the state began to look for new ways of space exploration and give way to private initiative, invite commercial enterprises to cooperation. A huge number of start-ups, garage undertakings appeared. A competition was announced in 2004 according to whose terms one had to create spacecraft without government and launch it to a height of no lower than 100 kilometres. The project TierOne that managed to meet all the terms of the competition on SpaceShipOne spacecraft got Ansari X-prize award. The expression “without government” regarding astronautics became legitimate.

The project TierOne that managed to meet all the terms of the competition on SpaceShipOne spacecraft got Ansari X-prize award. Photo: D Ramey Logan / wikipedia.org

What a task do amateurs in Russia set to themselves starting space exploration projects?

Unlike Elon Musk, they don’t make projects commercial. And this is a principle for amateurs. Many of them want their favourite occupation to make a profit, but it isn’t given pride of place. However, it’s not the Kulibins whom nobody knows, they deliberately make their discoveries, technologies and knowledge public via social media, say about stages of the creation of technologies in detail in videos, lectures, illustrations. They share it to show that any person can do it with a limited amount of resources for space exploration.

When I tell foreign colleagues about these cases, they think that any amateur initiative in Russia exists as a desire to take revenge: “We lost everything in space, and now we are going to become a great country through amateurs”. No, this works differently. The gimmick of amateur astronautics in Russia, which appeared recently, just several years ago, is to show that space exploration can be a doing of ordinary people who can do it at home.

Such examples exist in history. Several OSCAR satellites were created in the USA and Australia in the late 60s. These satellites were launched into space to monitor other space objects with the help of radio amateurs. The amateurs made them of materials at hand “in the back yard” and using the principle of space junk as Alice Gorman — space archaeologist from Australia — calls it. Amateurs weren’t a part of government programmes. There are such examples in history.

“The mouse got back to Earth safe and sound

Could you tell us the three stories you study in your research on amateur astronautics in Russia?

I have so far focused my attention on three stories: two of them have ended, while the third goes on. It is the launch of Lighthouse satellite in 2017. It is a launch of lab mice to the stratosphere in Petersburg in 2015. And a story about astronaut Oleg Blinov who makes space suits for different purposes at home, which are as similar to a real space suit as possible that can withstand the impact of too extreme environments.

Photo: topdialog.ru
The mouse got back safe and sound, as it was planned in the project. But, from the sceptical point of view, the stratosphere isn’t space as such

In a sense, these stories might be called stories about failures because Lighthouse satellite didn’t reply, and the team doesn’t know if it opened. The key development is the construction of sail made of a usual tape measure and light reflecting film — it must be well seen at night. But it seems that Lighthouse didn’t open. The mouse got back safe and sound, as it was planned in the project (the focus was that people can assume the responsibility, launch a living organism into the stratosphere with the help of a complex and at the same time simple technological system made of everyday items). But, from the sceptical point of view, the stratosphere isn’t space as such. What the guys did with the mice was in fact done as early as the 30s. And in the case of Oleg Blinov, it was just models of space suits that failed the test of space and often are made for films. Nevertheless, all these stories can show us that space exploration is possible without government, that there is a simpler way to “go into space”.

What is the advantage of such amateur astronautics compared to government projects?

Amateurs at times turn out faster, more flexible and adaptable than huge heavy bureaucratic machines like Roscosmos and even NASA. And some of their decisions can be cheaper because they are made of simpler components. For instance, an ordinary construction tape measure can be used to create a satellite. As one of the informers Denis Yefremov told me, one has to go to a big DIY store and just take all the tape measures available there, roll out the canvas and see where it bends and buy the one that resists bending longer. In case of the mouse sent to space, there was a question what box to put the mouse into so that it would withstand pressure-related problems. And some of the team members saw a video on YouTube where quite a heavy car crossed a five-litre bottle of water, it was decided to use this bottle, they did tests. These simple solutions become a political issue, as one doesn’t have to build huge industries spending huge money to manufacture components.

It is clear that there are restrictions. But space is always a dream and utopia. One should dream. If we look at Russian avant-garde, endeavours of Russian cosmic philosophers, Soviet and American space posters and postcards, we will see that they all have a dream about space. There will be no exploration without this dream. And what amateurs are doing now can be considered as a positive utopia of the future, which inspires those who work and those who stay tuned. I ask people who I interview the same question: “What did you feel when you launched a satellite or when the mouse survived?” It is incredible pride, joy and satisfaction with what they worked for long — from several months to several years — and managed to do it. Pay attention to the fact that there is no revenge here that my colleagues abroad expect according to some logic of events. But it is what is called “you can make your own life, you can make space exploration possible”.

Photo: vk.com/cosmomayak
When my colleagues were looking for an accumulator for Lighthouse satellite, Anton Aleksandrov, who was responsible for electric supply and surfed on forums of amateurs who create CubeSat satellites and found a type of accumulator that can survive in space

The Internet perhaps plays here an important role as an open source of information.

Undoubtedly. When my colleagues were looking for an accumulator for Lighthouse satellite, Anton Aleksandrov, who was responsible for electric supply and looked through amateur forums who create CubeSat satellites and found a type of accumulator that can survive in space. It is a relatively cheap type of industrial accumulator. In the case of mice, the guys just googled, looked for research papers that would explain to them how much air a mouse needed in the five-litre bottle.

In other words, amateurs show us that astronautics doesn’t have to be a separate avant-garde sphere dragging all the rest. There is a myth that the materials trainers or inflatable boats are made of appeared because somebody was sent into space. Today astronautics can be a horizontal process, components that aren’t deliberately created for space can be used in it. For instance, somebody publishes a PDF file of an article about the air a mouse needs, and you can use it because it is in the public domain.

“Roscosmos as well as many large state companies in Russia keep silent

Who are these amateurs?

They can be engineers, but, usually, it isn’t space engineers. It is quite young people, the average age is about 30 years. No limits. Nikita Popov is an animator. He had schoolchildren and students in the team. Aleksandr Shayenko also attracted students. Lighthouse had a powerful crowdfunding campaign, and girls — PR specialists — worked there. Moreover, people didn’t get money for it.

Mikhail Verentsov who was responsible for technical systems of the high-altitude balloon said that all they did was “school-level physics”. If you know it, it is no hard to understand the rest, and this all is time and matter of invention, as, unlike commercial and public astronautics, you are limited to resources, and you all the time have to make up simple shortcuts.

For instance, the same battery I told you about broke into pieces after the very first vibration trial, and all the welded joints between accumulators turned out destroyed, broken. And somebody made up that everything had to be filled with epoxy glue. The battery endured the next trial and generated current. Such simple solutions are the gist of amateur astronautics.

You said that the interest in space became to revive just recently. What contributed to it?

This all has begun after Elon Musk and other representatives of NewSpace movement’s successes, I think in the last 7-10 years. In Russia, it coincided with some events. Social media presented us with a boom of popular science. Many sciences, for instance, science about the brain, Drobyshevsky’s stories about the first people, astrophysics at the top — Popov, Surdin — became popular. Big popular science festivals appeared…

People have a chance to see, for instance, on Vk.com, that some launch is transmitted live. You begin to read, get interested: “Oh, he landed the platform on Earth, everyone is happy.” People read Wikipedia and understand he made it faster, cheaper, and, in addition, he is a cool guy, drinks whisky live. He is “our guy”, one of us, he dreams of going to Mars and asteroids, he isn’t some moneybags and capitalist.

How legal is the activity of amateurs? Is it regulated by the state?

The situation is ambiguous. The state no always knows what’s going on. I don’t mean secrets but it simply doesn’t notice such “details”. In the case of Lighthouse, a buzz began, there was a crowdfunding campaign, the guys raised almost a million rubles. And a person from Glavcosmos who is responsible for satellite launch, called Aleksandr Shayenko, introduced himself and said: “We’ve heard you have a student satellite, we are ready to provide a free site to you”.

On the other hand, in the case of Lighthouse, the guys couldn’t perform telemetry because it required additional technical and financial investments linked with obtaining permissions. And they decided to refuse telemetry and didn’t know what was happening to the satellite in this sense.

In general, Roscosmos as well as many large state companies in Russia, keep silent. People don’t talk about failures in Russia. For instance, the launch team of Lighthouse satellite had its own investigation why the satellite didn’t respond, and the key version is damage of CubSat by hydrazine of Fregat booster. 10 out of 19 satellites put into orbit with an apogee of 600 km didn’t respond. The guys learn in the news that Glavcosmos paid one of the foreign companies, which also had launched a satellite, insurance. But officials keep silent regarding Lighthouse and other satellites.

By Natalia Fyodorova