Before his death a year ago, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper wished he could have one more trip into outer space — and sometime next year, a little bit of his mortal remains will take that final trip, along with the ashes of a "Star Trek" star and more than 170 others.
Suzan Cooper, the astronaut's widow, told MSNBC.com Thursday that her late husband's ashes will be included in a memorial payload to be flown on SpaceX's second Falcon 1 launch, now scheduled for liftoff during the first quarter of 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
"In life, Gordon would have taken another trip into space ... so I figured, why not now?" Cooper said in a telephone interview from Ventura, Calif.
The arrangements are being made by Houston-based Space Services Inc., which has sent remains into space on five previous occasions. Such "post-cremation memorial spaceflights" typically involve placing small amounts of ashes into cylinders the size of lipstick tubes, then flying the cylinders as a secondary payload on a rocket launch. The payload goes into orbit, and burns up years later during atmospheric re-entry.
In the case of the upcoming Vandenberg launch, a Pentagon communications satellite known as TacSat 1 will be the primary payload, with Space Services' memorial mission piggybacking on SpaceX's Falcon 1 launch vehicle.
The Falcon 1 is a new type of rocket that has not yet been put to a real-world test in space. SpaceX had planned to give the Falcon 1 its maiden liftoff last weekend from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, but the launch was scrubbed at the last minute due to a computer glitch and a liquid-oxygen supply problem. That first launch is now due to take place no earlier than Dec. 19, SpaceX spokeswoman Dianne Molina told MSNBC.com.
Space Services said the Vandenberg memorial flight will include remains from more than 170 people, including at least one other notable: James Doohan, the actor who played chief engineer Montgomery Scott in "Star Trek" TV shows and movies. Doohan passed away in July after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
Cooper was chosen as one of the original "Mercury 7" astronauts in 1959, at the dawn of the space race. In 1963 he flew a 34-hour, 22-orbit mission that was the last manned flight of the Mercury program — and the first American spaceflight during which the pilot actually got some sleep.
In 1965, he was the command pilot for Gemini 5, flying alongside Pete Conrad on an eight-day mission that proved humans could withstand weightlessness long enough for a trip to the moon. That was the last spaceflight of Cooper's career, although he was a backup astronaut for Apollo 10. After his retirement from NASA and the Air Force in 1970, Cooper served in a wide range of corporate roles. He died at home in October 2004, at the age of 77.
Susan Cooper said her husband never mentioned having his ashes flown into space "per se," but he was good friends with Mercury colleague Deke Slayton, who was one of the founders of Space Services Inc. She said she decided having Space Services send some of Cooper's ashes into space would be an appropriate tribute.
Space Services spokeswoman Susan Schonfeld said Gordon Cooper would be the first astronaut to have his remains launched into space. However, he is by no means the first person with space connections to be memorialized in this way: "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry's ashes went up on a previous flight, and Space Services also assisted with the arrangements to have astronomer-geologist Gene Shoemaker's ashes included on NASA's Lunar Prospector probe, which orbited the moon until its lunar crash landing in 1999.
The company is planning to set up a memorial Web page for Cooper at Spacehero.net, similar to one already established for James Doohan.
"We wanted to give Astronaut Cooper a dedication page," Schonfeld told MSNBC.com, "because, look, he achieved a lot. He was an American hero."