In the wee hours of Tuesday, May 22, thousands of people watched in person or via the Internet as a SpaceX rocket lifted off launch pad 39 in Cape Canaveral.
Its historic mission was to dock with the International Space Station and become the first private sector vehicle to supply it. But supplies were not the only valuable commodities aboard.
A secondary payload held the cremains of more than 300 people from 18 countries destined to orbit the earth. For the 80 to 90 people at the launch who had contracted with Celestis Inc., it was an emotional experience. To me, it was that and more.
It was a promise fulfilled.
Nearly six years ago, I sat beside my dear husband as he prepared to enter palliative care at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. While we tearfully discussed final arrangements, Steve announced cremation as his choice. Although I wasn’t certain of my feelings in that regard, if cremation was his wish, I vowed to make his memorial something more.
As I pondered how to do that, I recalled how excited Steve was years ago when creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry’s ashes were shot into space. Since then, I knew NASA had also launched the ashes of a few former astronauts and celebrities, but questioned whether posthumous space travel was available to the general population. If so, it would be the ultimate memorial for anyone who loved “the final frontier.”
Steve’s lifelong love affair with all things celestial began with his first view of Sputnik passing overhead. From that time on, nothing space-related ever missed his attention. In fact, because of Steve, I was probably aware of the Challenger disaster before many media. He had arranged to watch the only channel offering live coverage of what was becoming a routine event. Just seconds after the explosion, he called me at work, emotionally recounting what he had just seen.
Although we always made important decisions together, I know that if he had been offered an opportunity to fly on the next space shuttle, I would not have even been consulted.
After researching possibilities for launching ashes into space, we discovered Celestis Inc., the sole company to offer posthumous space travel. Founded by Charles Chafer, who was born in Topeka, to a Kansas University alumnus, Celestis had been offering memorial space flights for 20 years. While various options existed, it was easy to choose earth’s orbit so Steve could symbolically watch over us.
When my “wannabe” astronaut husband was told that I would send some of his ashes into space, I was rewarded with one of his biggest smiles. My promise was made.
For more than five years, I awaited an earth’s orbit launch from within the United States. During that time, lessons were learned about the fragility of space launches and the necessity of patience. At one point, my oldest son jokingly requested that I no longer call him because that meant another delay. When the launch finally occurred, I had experienced numerous projected launch times, three actual scheduled dates, and even an aborted launch just three days earlier. But whatever the cost for multiple airline ticket and accommodation changes for myself, my sons, Christopher and Ryan, and daughter-in-law, Erin, I vowed we would not miss this event.
Six of us, including my sister and brother-in-law, Marsha and Ray Goff, arrived in Cocoa Beach on a Thursday expecting to see the launch on early Saturday morning. To our delight, the 4:55 a.m. launch time meant that the 19-story Falcon 9 rocket was already on the launch pad and could be viewed by touring Kennedy Space Center on Friday. A memorial service for the participants and dinner with a former astronaut added to our anticipation that the launch was finally going to occur.
Unfortunately, the launch was aborted at the half-second mark, and only about half of those who came to see their loved ones become posthumous space travelers could stay for the successful event three days later.
But those three days became an opportunity to meet other family members of participants who were as resolute as I in seeing this happen. Among those remaining was Wende Doohan, widow of James Doohan who is best known for playing Scotty from the original Star Trek series, and their 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.
With the launch rescheduled for 3:44 a.m. Tuesday, Celestis again provided refreshments with a party atmosphere, and arranged for rooftop viewing with a large screen to capture current activity and speakers to broadcast the countdown. Although the sleep-deprived crowd was more subdued than at the previous launch attempt, excitement began to increase at 30 minutes to lift off.
Several of us chose to view the launch away from lights by standing on the Jetty. We could not hear the official countdown, but many used watches or the clocks on cell phones to track time for lift-off. Finally, the sudden flash of engines firing beneath the rocket indicated that what we had come to see was finally going to happen. In a matter of seconds, the rocket began to rise as a bright star ascending to the heavens. Cheers erupted, followed quickly by silence as we stared in awe.
We continued to watch breathlessly as our loved ones began their journey into space. Some cried, others high-fived or hugged. I didn’t cry as I expected, but instead a big smile crossed my face just as it had Steve’s when he learned that he would be “born anew as an astronaut.”
I simply threw one arm skyward and shouted, “Ad Astra, Steve.”