The Final, Terrible Voyage of the Nautilus


By May Jeong—WIRED—February 15th, 2018—

Kim Wall went for a ride on a submarine, hoping to write a story about a maker of “extreme machines.” She never did. I needed to know what happened.

On May 3, 2008, a sunny Saturday in Copenhagen, a crowd gathered along a dock to watch a 58-foot submarine be lowered into the water. Part art project, part engineering feat, the submarine weighed 40 tons and had been built by volunteers at minimal cost from donated iron and other parts. The onlookers cheered as the submarine floated for the first time. Peter Madsen, the designer of the vessel and the organizer of the day’s event, climbed into the hatch, smiling in a white skipper’s hat, before the submarine motored into the water.

Madsen christened the vessel the UC3 Nautilus, after the fictional submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Jules Verne’s antihero Captain Nemo was a figure who lived outside social laws, sailing the seven seas in search of total freedom. Unlike Nemo, Madsen had stayed close to home in Denmark, but he had devoted his life to building audacious vehicles of his own design, ones that might venture high above the atmosphere or down into the depths of the ocean.

Shortly after the launch of the Nautilus, Madsen started another venture. He and a former NASA contractor named Kristian von Bengtson cofounded a company called Copenhagen Suborbitals. Their plan was to launch the first manned built-from-scratch rocket. The two set up shop on Refshaleøen, an area of the city that extends into Copenhagen’s harbor and once had been the heart of Denmark’s shipping empire. That industry’s decline had left empty warehouses and factories, which had been reclaimed by artists, engineers, and other creative types. Madsen and von Bengtson were among them, occupying a hangar, and financing Copenhagen Suborbitals with crowdfunded donations. It was, von Bengtson wrote in 2011 on a WIRED blog he started that year about the rocket building, “the ultimate DIY project.”