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Peter Madsen: Isolated Danish inventor with a rocky past

Danish police have confirmed finding the headless torso of journalist Kim Wall. She was last seen with Madsen.

COPENHAGEN: An eccentric inventor described as fanatical and foul-tempered, Peter Madsen’s career has been punctuated by stories of professional fallouts, mood swings and a willingness to go it alone. The Danish submarine-maker is suspected in the death of Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist whose headless torso was recovered days after her disappearance while writing a feature story about Madsen.

Madsen has spent his life attempting to break the boundaries of space and sea. “My passion is finding ways to travel to worlds beyond the well-known,” the self-taught engineer, well-known in Denmark, wrote on the website of his Rocket Madsen Space Lab.

His most recent voyage, however, threatens to define him somewhat differently. On Aug. 10, he boarded his homemade submarine, the 18-meter Nautilus, with Wall.

She was then reported missing a day after the interview.

Madsen was rescued just moments before his submarine sank, an event investigators believe was deliberate.

Madsen initially said he had dropped Wall off alive on a Copenhagen island, but later changed his story to say she died in an accident on board and he had buried her body at sea.

Wall’s torso was found Monday in waters off Copenhagen, weighed down by a metal object in a scenario worthy of a Nordic Noir thriller. Madsen is now suspected of negligent homicide.

Seen as part Carl Sagan and part Jacques Cousteau, Madsen championed private submarine construction and space exploration, most recently leading a grassroots effort to launch a rocket built by amateurs rather than governments or multinational corporations.

But the 46-year-old, reportedly married, has a reputation for histrionics and has angered many along his way.

He grew up in the small lakeside town of Saeby, 100 km west of Copenhagen. His mother was 36 years younger than his father, an innkeeper he has described as authoritarian and violent. His parents divorced when he was 6, and Madsen went to live with his father.

“When I think about my father, I think how children in Germany must have felt if their dad was a commandant in a concentration camp. How does it feel to know your own father is a villain?” Madsen said in a 2014 biography written by journalist Thomas Djursing.

He did however share his father’s love of military history and war jets.

At 15, he created his first company, Danish Space Academy, to buy spare parts to build a rocket.

Upon his 81-year-old father’s death three years later, he began studying engineering but quit once he thought he knew enough to build submarines and rockets.

In 2008, he launched the Nautilus, the biggest privately-made submarine at the time. Around the same time, he developed his idea for private space travel. In June 2011, he successfully launched a rocket from a floating platform on the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm.

He is described by Djursing as “not violent,” and he “doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs.”

Friends say he is uncompromising, doesn’t like being contradicted and has frequent mood swings. “He is angry with God and everyone,” Djursing told Danish daily Jyllands-Posten on Aug. 14.

“Conflict has followed him his whole life. He has a hard time getting along with other people – he has lofty ambitions and wants to do everything his way.”

On Aug. 16, his half-brother Benny Langkjaer Egeso told Swedish daily Expressen that Madsen “is very strange and that turns him into his own greatest enemy right now.”

Friend and submarine colleague Gwaino Razz told Expressen that Madsen “is unique, but he’s not a social person.” Madsen reportedly has few material possessions, and has lived on his submarine at times. Supported by financial backers, he also earns money from speaking engagements.

The first rockets he launched into space were the result of a partnership with a former NASA architect, Kristian von Bengtson.

But the two men parted company after an angry spat in 2014 and Madsen created his own space project, RLM Space Lab. “I’m fully aware that my temper is to blame for Kristian’s exit and I’m very sorry it has come to this,” Madsen wrote in a statement at the time.

The inventor also fought with the 25 volunteers he led for three years to build the Nautilus. After a 2015 conflict, the sub’s board of directors transferred ownership to him.

Madsen had sent a text message to two board members at the time, saying “there is a curse on Nautilus. ... That curse is me. There will never be peace on Nautilus as long as I exist,” Madsen wrote, according to a 2015 post written by the volunteers on the sub’s website.

“You will never have a good feeling inside the submarine ... do not throw more lifeblood into that boat.” Madsen has acknowledged he prefers working on his own.

“I’m a one-man operation, that’s the strength of a dictatorship,” he said in a 2014 podcast.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2017, on page 6.

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