Commercial Space Flight

From the Spring 2012 issue of Periodic Elements

“Within the next five years, there will be at least one commercial space flight a day,” says Mike Summers, director of the School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences. Summers just returned from the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference held in Palo Alto, California, where he sits on the program committee and works to advise the group on how to use space vehicles to support education. “There were over 450 registered attendees this year,” says Summers. “This was the most exciting conference we’ve ever had.” Summers’s excitement about the future of commercial space flight is infectious. “Commercial space exploration leads the way,” he says. Through companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and Space Adventures—just down the road from Mason in Vienna, Virginia—“average people will be able to travel to space, and there will be new venues to study planetary science, climate, and space medicine, and develop new technology.”

Former astronaut Neil Armstrong delivered this year’s conference keynote address. He spoke about space exploration in the 1950s and 1960s and the importance of going back into space. Armstrong has not spoken publicly in many years. “He brought back all the excitement about space that I felt as a kid,” says Summers. “The public needs to feel motivated again, and that enthusiasm was felt here.”

The next generation of space flight will take tourists not to the moon but rather to suborbital space, which is defined as 100 kilometers above sea level. From there, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the infinite darkness of space and the curvature of the Earth. The cost for the adventure starts at about $100,000. And while that is no small sum, it is attainable for many people and equivalent to mounting an expedition to Mt. Everest. Summers says that many companies are giving flights away to promote their services. But what’s more exciting is that the cost of sending experiments into space will be affordable, somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Companies are working with both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration on safety rules and regulations.

Summers envisions that students can run fundraisers, create and launch experiments, and analyze the data all within a semester. He feels that companies will offer free space on board flights for research studies, as well. He is interested in bringing space research to Mason and would like to develop an undergraduate concentration in space science and technology. He sees it working well with physics, computational sciences, and biology. Currently, he is working with Purdue University in Indiana on an experiment that will measure temperature and pressure levels in the upper atmosphere. Summers explains that we have little information about that part of our atmosphere and that suborbital space flights will allow us a new view of the planet. Part of the challenge and education that comes from gathering data is teaching students how to design the experiments, and that too is something Summers envisions happening at Mason. “We have free access to equipment, and we can build our experiments in small labs,” he explains. “Now all we need is to find a place on campus.” The sky’s the limit.