AMERICAN FORK – Riley Meik’s fascination with rockets started early.
”When I was 5 years old my dad bought one of those model rockets you can get at Walmart,” he recalled this week, explaining that they launched it into the sky and it quickly disappeared.
”That was kind of the start. I caught rocket fever, started making my own (rocket) propellant when I was in junior high.”
This weekend, Meik’s rocket fever may start to pay off.
A company Meik co-founded last year as a student at Brigham Young University will have its first commercial launch with a blastoff at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He hopes to prove that — if the price is right — many people and organizations will be eager to send stuff into space.
If all goes according to plan, just after sunrise on Saturday, a 25-foot-tall rocket built in American Fork will soar 77 miles high to the fringes of space carrying small packages for paying customers. Meik’s vision for Sugarhouse Aerospace — a company that initially operated out of a garage in Sugar House — is to launch high-flying rockets at bargain-basement prices.
The concept is to provide a sort of Uber-like ride-sharing service for companies, individuals and schools that might want to launch something only the size of a bar of soap. They can pay to put their package into a rack of containers on the rocket, spreading the cost of a launch over numerous paying customers. The goal is to make access to space much more affordable.
“Right now people are paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to launch something on a suborbital rocket,” Meik said. “With us, payloads start for as low as $500 to launch to space.”
Meik, who sometimes arrives by skateboard at the company’s small production facility, founded Sugarhouse Aerospace along with CEO Steve Heller. Meik said they’ve raised about $500,000 so far to get the company off the ground. Successful test firings paved the way for this weekend’s launch at the spaceport built and operated by the state of New Mexico.
On the company’s first commercial flight they’re giving a free ride for a tiny cube put together by students and volunteers at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center in Pleasant Grove.
“Cool, guys! We’re sending something to space!” said Victoria Stone as she and several other students assembled their package in a box that’s barely big enough to hold a baseball. When the students were offered a free ride for the cube, they brainstormed what ought to be included, abandoning many ideas that didn’t seem to work out.
“We’re actually on Plan F,” said Wes Kinsey as he squeezed components into the cube. The students themselves designed the contents of the cube and made some of the components on a 3D printer. They purchased a small robotic device that will record conditions in the airless and nearly gravity-free environment their package will fly through for about five minutes.
“Humidity, pressure, altitude,” said Mason Edmondson, going through the list of factors the students’ box will record. “It’s got UV (ultraviolet) sensors on the front. It’ll detect movement in both vertical X, Y and Z axes.” Although such factors may have been well studied by scientists, Edmondson says it’s still a great opportunity for students.
“It’s the excitement of figuring it out for ourselves,” he said. “I mean, sure, you can go and read all the stuff other people have done. But when you’ve done it yourself, it gives that excitement to it.”
For an experiment in the near vacuum of space, the students squeezed in some kid stuff, like Silly Putty and marshmallows.
“We’re hoping these will expand enough to push a button,” Kinsey said, and “so basically create a free, cheap depressurization chamber.”
On traditional rockets, a learning opportunity of this kind would be unaffordable. But student projects could be a major market for the Sugarhouse rocket.
“Oh, absolutely, and I think this is just the beginning,” said longtime science teacher Doug Pusey, assistant director of the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center.
Businesses also are getting on board. Several companies are paying Sugarhouse Aerospace to send their products into space, including golf balls, watches and even Oreo cookies — all for the benefit of on-board video cameras.
“If they can get video of their product in space, they can use it for some type of advertising in the future,” Meik said. “The thing is, right now space is cool again. Yeah, it’s a gimmick; people think space is cool, so they (the companies) throw something up on their social media” for advertising.
Another potential market has emerged for cheap space flights: disposal of cremation ashes. The company’s first commercial flight will carry aloft the ashes of one of Heller’s relatives.
“In celebration of her,” Meik said, “some family members purchased space on the rocket to send Grandma up into space.”
When a company or individual wants to put something on a rocket, they can simply go to the company’s website and sign up. “It’s super easy,” Meik said. “We’re trying to make launching payloads into space as easy as buying a plane ticket.”
Meik has ambitious plans for the small startup company. “Up to six launches next year,” he said, “and we’ll keep moving. Our five-year goal is 100 launches per year.”