UPHAM, N.M. — The cremated remains of actor James Doohan, who portrayed the engineer Scotty on "Star Trek," and of NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper soared briefly into space Saturday aboard a rocket.
It was the first successful launch from Spaceport America, a commercial spaceport being developed in the southern New Mexico desert. Suzan Cooper and Wende Doohan fired the rocket carrying small amounts of their husbands' ashes at 8:56 a.m. MT (10:56 a.m. ET).
"Go baby, go baby," said Eric Knight, chief executive officer of Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, the company that staged the launch.
Since it was a suborbital flight, the rocket soon plummeted back to Earth, coming down at the White Sands Missile Range.
"We nailed it. We stuck the landing," said Knight.
Knight told MSNBC.com that the rocket reached an altitude of 72 miles (115 kilometers), well beyond the internationally accepted 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space.
UP Aerospace launched the first rocket from the desert site in September, but that Spaceloft XL rocket crashed into the desert after spiraling out of control about nine seconds after liftoff. Company officials blamed the failure on a faulty fin design.
Remains on ‘memorial spaceflight’
More than 200 family members paid $495 to place small samples of their relatives' ashes on the rocket. Celestis, a Houston company, contracted with UP to send the cremated remains into space.
Charles Chafer, chief executive of Celestis, said last month that a CD with more than 11,000 condolences and fan notes was placed on the rocket with Doohan's remains.
Doohan, whose portrayal of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott became a signature role on the 1960s TV series "Star Trek" as well as the movies that followed, died in July 2005 at age 85. The remains of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry were sent into space in 1997.
Cooper was the last astronaut to fly in the Mercury space program, orbiting Earth 22 times during his Mercury 9 flight in 1963. That made him the first American to sleep in space, and the last American to fly alone in space until SpaceShipOne's private-sector astronauts did it in 2004 . Cooper was also the command pilot for Gemini 5 in 1965. He died in 2004 at the age of 77.
The samples of cremated remains from each "memorial spaceflight" client amounted to just a few grams each, or a fraction of an ounce, enclosed in a container roughly the size of a lipstick tube.
Saturday's launch from New Mexico's fledgling spaceport — currently a 100-by-25-foot (30-by-7.6-meter) concrete slab in a patch of desert more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Las Cruces — keeps the facility ahead of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' space effort across the state line in West Texas.
Bezos' Blue Origin venture has been testing prototype rockets at the Internet billionaire's private spaceport north of Van Horn, Texas. Blue Origin is working to develop a vertically launched suborbital spaceship for tourist flights, with 2010 targeted for the start of commercial service.
British billionaire Richard Branson has announced plans to launch his own suborbital space tours from Spaceport America in the 2009-2010 time frame.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com.
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