|The recovery crew kneels behind the UP Aerospace rocket's payload section at its New Mexico landing site. From left to right: Bobby Bixter (flight engineer), Roger
Bodwell (pilot), Jerry Larson (president. UP Aerospace), Ed Levine (Merlin Systems),
and Todd Miller (White Sands Missile Range).
The rocket payload containing samples of cremated remains from "Star Trek" actor James Doohan, pioneer astronaut Gordon Cooper and 200 other dearly departed has been found in a surprising place, more than two weeks after its rise to - and fall from - outer space.
Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, which launched the payload on its SpaceLoft XL rocket on April 28, had been looking for it in remote mountainous terrain within New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range. But it turned out that the payload actually came down in a flat area of the range, less than a mile from the rocket's aim point, said Jerry Larson, the company's president and a leader of the search team.
The intensive search in the mountains, two miles away from the actual landing site, ended up being little more than a "wild goose chase," Larson told me today.
He explained that the search got on the wrong track because the four tiny radio transmitters that were attached to the payload's parachute apparently had fallen off during the descent and landed in the mountains. It took a couple of days this week to find all the transmitters and recalibrate the search.
On Friday, searchers aboard an Army helicopter provided by the missile range carefully eyeballed the area around the aim point from the air. "We actually just found it by visual [observation]," Larson told me. Earlier aerial searches of the same area had missed the payload and its parachute because the survey was not as detailed, he said.
The payload consisted of the nose cone and the upper few feet of the SpaceLoft XL rocket. It included more than 200 capsules, each about the size of a lipstick tube. Each capsule contained a few grams of cremated human remains, flown into space as part of a $495 package offered by Texas-based Celestis. Doohan and Cooper were the best-known passengers on this "memorial spaceflight":
Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the classic "Star Trek" TV show as well as spin-off movies, passed away in 2005.
Cooper, who is best-known for his 1963 solo spaceflight on Mercury 9 and his Gemini 5 flight in 1965, died in 2004.
The payload contained other items as well, including more than 50 small scientific experiments from high-school and college students.
Larson said the payload appeared to be safe and sound, with just a few dings on the outside. "I have it with me right now, and it's heading back to Denver," he told me via cell phone. It will be opened up at UP Aerospace's Denver-area facility, and eventually the contents will be returned to the launch customers, he said.
Celestis, in turn, will send the capsules of ashes back to the families, along with mementos of the launch.
"We certainly felt a huge responsibility for getting this back to the customers," Larson said. "Everyone has been very supportive."
He said that includes Wende Doohan, the actor's widow, who sent Space Services (Celestis' parent company) more than one message of support during the search for the payload.
"She trusted us to fly it into space, which we did successfully, and she trusted us to find it," Larson said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Wende Doohan said her late husband "probably wished he could have stayed" in space.
James Doohan and Gordon Cooper are due to get at least one more posthumous ride to the final frontier: Additional samples of their cremated remains are to be included in another Celestis package that would fly as a secondary payload on SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket later this year. That would be an orbital trip, leaving the capsules in space until they make their fiery re-entry through the upper atmosphere.
Watch for updates on UP Aerospace's Web site - including photos and videos from the scene.
Correction for 10:45 p.m. May 21: Larson said the messages of support came via Space Services from Wende Doohan rather than Suzan Cooper (as I had originally written it). The error has been corrected. Sorry about that - somehow I had the wrong name in my notes.