It's the dawn of a new year, a time that we often think about the future. For Cameron Smith, a professor of Anthropology at Portland State University, that future looks like something from a 1950s B-movie: He's building his own space suit by hand. When I say by hand, I mean by hand—he doesn't even own a sewing machine. Recently featured on the podcasts Destination DIY and 99% Invisible, Cameron's work is an impressive example of the weird world of DIY aeronautics. Motivated by the challenge of engineering his own answers to the technical difficulties of keeping a human body alive in the extreme pressures of space (officially bounded by the Karman line, for those interested), rather than design prize money or grants from an entity like NASA, he is definitely on the outer reaches of space engineering and DIY in general. To date, the only key component he hasn't fabricated himself is a Soviet space helmet. When stumped he often turns to Soviet designs, because their smaller space budget forced them to use more creative problem-solving.
Though it's still a work in process (the wearer can currently breathe in but not out—"It's a minor problem, we will fix it"), the pressurized suit is already stable and airtight enough to function at length underwater. Once the design is trustworthy, he intends to take the suit up to space-like conditions at 50,000 feet in a balloon-supported gondola - also made by hand. In the meantime, Cameron has teamed up with Copenhagen Suborbitals, a non-profit rocket building project operated out of an abandoned shipyard in Denmark. It may sound sketchy, but they are prolific and dedicated and making headway towards manned space flight.
While intentionally reinventing the wheel might sound like a painful Zen exercise for engineering students, there's no doubt that it makes room for innovation and improvement. Case in point: this space suit costs less than $2,000. Even commercial space flight companies can benefit from this type of rudimentary thinking, as recently evidenced by an Airbus official's public admission that SpaceX's janky solution to a power problem was both effective and chagrining.
We've covered other space design ventures and there are tons more out there, most of which are for profit or working with government agencies, and I'll leave it up to you which method is more interesting. I'll just say, if it's stupid and it works... let's wait and see how Cameron's flight goes.