Ashes of Star Trek's Scotty go aloft in SpaceX rocket
James Doohan, the Canadian-born actor who played Scotty on Star Trek, spent his career whizzing through the cosmos. Gordon Cooper was one of America's famous Mercury seven astronauts. And Bob Shrake spent his work life anonymously helping send NASA's high-tech spacecraft to other planets.
Now the three men who made space their lives are also making space their final resting place. Their ashes — and those of about 300 others — were aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket that blasted into orbit Tuesday as part of an in-space for-profit burial business.
Shrake was an engineer who designed spaceship control instruments for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. After he died in 2007, his family decided that space would be a nice place to send some of his ashes so they spent a few thousand dollars to launch them in space with the Texas-based firm Celestis Inc. His daughter, Robin Smith of Grapevine, Texas, got up very early Tuesday to watch the pre-dawn launch, and said it was fitting.
"I thought wow, he was actually up in the sky, in the place where his work is being used," Smith said by telephone.
The ashes were in a special container, which SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell confirmed Tuesday was in the second stage of the Falcon rocket. That section of the rocket was jettisoned about 10 minutes after launching a capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station. It will remain in orbit for about a year then burn up as it returns to Earth.
Aboard botched 2008 flight
You don't have to be in the space business to have your ashes deposited in orbit, but you do have to have nearly $3,000. Some of what Celestis calls "participants" in this flight, which the company called its "new frontier" mission, have no connection to space.
Some people's ashes that flew Tuesday, including those of Doohan and Cooper, were also on a botched 2008 SpaceX launch that didn't get the remains into orbit and dropped into the Pacific Ocean. This is a makeup flight for them.
Doohan was born in Vancouver in 1920. He died in 2005 at age 85. In retirement, he lived in Redmond, Wash.
Others whose ashes have flown previously include Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his actress-wife Majel Barrett, who was in the series.
Smith said her father — ever the frugal engineer — might have thought this a waste of money, but his family is glad they did it: "Most of his career dealt with outer space and orbit and now he's in it."
Lifted off early Tuesday
The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and its unmanned Dragon capsule marked the first time a commercial spacecraft has been sent to the orbiting outpost.
Tracing a fiery arc across the night sky, the rocket lifted off just before 4 a.m. Tuesday and smoothly boosted the capsule into orbit. The capsule is expected to rendezvous with the space station within days, delivering a half-ton of provisions for its six crew members.
It is considered just a test flight — in fact, the capsule was packed with only nonessential items, in case something went disastrously wrong — but if all goes well with this mission and others like it, commercial spaceships could be carrying astronauts to and from the space station in three to five years.
"Falcon flew perfectly!!" billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of the SpaceX company, said via Twitter. "Feels like a giant weight just came off my back."
Musk later told reporters: "For us, it's like winning the Super Bowl."
Up to now, flights to the space station were something only major governments had done.
Significance 'cannot be overstated'
NASA is looking to the private sector to take over flights to the space station now that the space shuttle has been retired. Several U.S. companies are vying for the opportunity.
"The significance of this day cannot be overstated," said a beaming NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "It's a great day for America. It's actually a great day for the world, because there are people who thought that we had gone away, and today says, 'No, we're not going away at all.'"
Flight controllers applauded when the Dragon reached orbit nine minutes into the flight. Then they embraced once the solar panels on the craft popped open. Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts, jeans or shorts, a stark contrast to NASA's suit-and-tie shuttle crowd.
A previous launch attempt, on Saturday, was aborted with a half-second left in the countdown because of a bad valve in one of Falcon's nine engines.
Another important test comes Thursday when the Dragon draws close to the space station. It will undergo practice manoeuvrs from more than a mile out. If all goes well, docking will occur on Friday. Musk will preside from the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, California.
Since the shuttle's retirement last summer, American astronauts have been hitching rides to the space station aboard Russian rockets, and Russian, Japanese and European ships have been delivering supplies.
Elon Musk contributed millions
SpaceX has spent more than $1 billion on the project.
Musk, the 40-year-old entrepreneur who helped create PayPal and runs the electric car company Tesla Motors, has poured in millions of his own fortune, and NASA has contributed $381 million in seed money in a venture that has been likened to the public-private collaboration that built the Internet and won the West.
Even Musk's rivals were rooting for a successful flight.
"The shuttle may be retired, but the American dream of space exploration is alive and well," said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Corp.'s space systems, which is developing a mini-shuttle to carry space station crews in a few years.
The Dragon capsule will stay at the space station for a week and then splash down in the Pacific, bringing back experiments and equipment. None of the other cargo ships now in use are designed to return safely; they burn up on the way down.
Two more Dragon supply missions are planned this year, regardless of what happens this week.