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Homing in on Scotty

More than two weeks after being launched and lost, a capsule containing mortal remains from "Star Trek" actor James Doohan, pioneer astronaut Gordon Cooper and 200 others has been located, more or less, in the rugged mountains of southern New Mexico. Tracking experts are converging on the site for a beefed-up recovery effort due to start Wednesday.

The April 28 suborbital flight was the first true space shot for Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, which fired its SpaceLoft XL rocket from New Mexico's Spaceport America. The idea was to send capsules containing small samples of cremated remains above the 62-mile boundary of outer space and back - thus providing a posthumous taste of space.

The headliners for the flight were Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the popular "Star Trek" TV show and movie series; and "Gordo" Cooper, who in 1963 became the last astronaut to fly in the Mercury program (and the first American to snooze in space). Cooper passed away in 2004, Doohan in 2005.

UP Aerospace
A photo taken by a helicopter-borne

recovery team shows the

mountainous area where the

SpaceLoft XL payload fell.

The up part went superbly for UP Aerospace, but the down was something of a downer. The rocket sections floated down on parachutes into rugged mountain terrain in the White Sands Missile Range. The bottom section was recovered last week, thanks to radio transmitters mounted on the rocket. But the top section, containing the "memorial spaceflight" payload, is still out in the wilderness.

The good news is that the transmitters on the top section are still beaming out signals. Radio surveys have narrowed down the search area to a radius of about 1,300 feet, said Eric Knight, UP Aerospace's co-founder and chief executive officer.

"It's in tough terrain," he told me today. "They've done helicopter flyovers with directional antennas to pinpoint an area that they're going to go in to look at much more closely."

UP Aerospace President Jerry Larson told me that a team of tracking experts would fly into the area via Army helicopter as early as Wednesday. Trackers have been over the area before, but this time they will be using more precise sensors to narrow down the origin of the radio signals.

You'd think searchers would have been able to spot the parachute by now, but Larson said "it's not surprising" that the chute hasn't yet been located.

"It's on the north face of a mountain that has heavy vegetation and trees," Larson said. "It's obviously not laying out, screaming 'Here I am.' ... It must be wadded up under a tree."

Larson is confident that the payload can be quickly airlifted out by helicopter, once the trackers find it. "That'll be the easy part of it," he said.

The hardest part might well be coping with the area's mercurial weather. Monte Marlin, a public affairs specialist for White Sands Missile Range, told me that this has been an unusually active year for thunderstorms in the mountains, and Knight said that's one reason why the payload hasn't yet been recovered.

"Between where it landed, and the weather, and the terrain, it's made things extra challenging," Knight said.

"We actually had a tornado touch down," Larson said.

For what it's worth, the weather at White Sands was "beautiful" today, Marlin said, but the chance of thunderstorms is expected to rise later in the week. Larson said his team plans to fly in the morning, when the skies tend to be clearer.

Larson said the tracking team - which includes representatives from Idaho-based Merlin Systems, which made the micro-transmitters - will be on standby at least through Saturday to continue the search. Merlin Systems specializes in transmitters that can be attached to hunting falcons and wildlife - and Knight said the gadgets are designed to send out signals for 30 days or significantly longer under rugged conditions.

"They're the perfect complement to what we're doing," Knight told me.

This won't be the last UP Aerospace launch from New Mexico: Both Knight and Larson said the landings to come should go much more smoothly, now that they have their first data point for judging real-life trajectories. There have been rumblings that last month's launch trajectory was changed at the last minute, but UP Aerospace had nothing to say on that score.

Knight and Larson are just looking forward to returning those samples of Scotty, Gordo and the others to their families. Once the payload is recovered, Larson expects to airlift it directly to a waiting truck, several miles from the landing site. Then UP Aerospace would send the package of memorial capsules back to Houston-based Celestis, which organized the memorial spaceflight. "I suspect we'll probably mail it back," Larson said.

Celestis has said it will send the capsules back to the families along with mementos of the flight. The final leg of the journey may not be as thrilling as a rocket launch - but if there's a heaven for space travelers, Scotty, Gordo and the others will no doubt be up there breathing a sigh of relief.