The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SL-2 rocket before launch
The UP Aerospace SL-2 rocket on its launching rail prior to the April 28th flight. (credit: E. Walker)

A giant candle for closure

The UP Aerospace launch from Spaceport America on April 28th was historic for many reasons, which one could guess by the amount of media attention it drew. It was the first launch from the spaceport that actually went into space! The targeted trajectory would bring it up to a 112-kilometer apogee, but rumor has it that it went nearly 130 kilometers. There were 200 cremains on a payload just below the nose cone, behind a painted American flag, courtesy of Celestis. There were also student experiments aboard.

Among the ashes was a portion of what I collected off of my car windshield wiper on September 11, 2001, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a couple kilometers directly downwind of Ground Zero. I had collected the ashes in hopes of getting them tested to see what poisons they might contain. It dawned on me some years later that I could use Celestis’s service to finally get the closure I longed for. Like many New Yorkers, I never had a “normal” way of mourning the tragedy. Launching the ashes represented the fact that we will not let terrorism (or any terrestrial issues, for that matter) deter us from thinking about the future in a positive way. It symbolized lighting a giant candle in memory of that day and the hard times that followed. I invited my friends who had also suffered a great deal from 9-11 to find their own meaning in the launch. Unfortunately, none of them could make it, being the hard-working New Yorkers they are, but I was on the phone with several of them and it really lifted their spirits.

Launching the ashes represented the fact that we will not let terrorism (or any terrestrial issues, for that matter) deter us from thinking about the future in a positive way.

Originally the 9-11 ashes were to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but after some delays, Celestis gave customers the option of moving their payload to the much smaller UP Aerospace rocket launching from just outside of my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Not only was this more convenient for my family, who still lives in Las Cruces, to attend, but it made the launch so much more meaningful to me. I have been following the progress of private space companies for the last 15 years, and have been a big fan of the X Prize competition since 1996, which in large part helped to make this spaceport a reality. The fact that so much is happening for space just outside of my hometown is both amazing and surreal.

Another advantage of launching on UP Aerospace’s rocket is that we will all get our payloads back after they have flown into space. When the ashes are returned, I will be dividing it in two and presenting one portion to Rudy Giuliani to thank him for keeping New Yorkers sane after that horrible day. His leadership will never be forgotten. The other half I will present to President George Bush to thank him for promoting an initiative for ongoing human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit during this time of war. One thing that brought me out of my shock and made me finally shed much-needed tears after 9-11 was when I saw the first war protests in Union Square. I thought surely, if we go to war at this point in time, we will not have the resources to send humans to space for a very long time. Like people I know, my life revolves around the prospect of humans eventually getting into space permanently.

When President Bush announced his new Vision for Space Exploration program in January of 2004, I felt great satisfaction in knowing that even if his plan does not follow through with perfection, at least someone in power is pushing the initiative. And, should the government not take the reins, over the course of the last few years we have seen private space companies build real hardware and real spaceships that have already carried humans into space. We are not giving up on space—no matter what—and that is what the launch of these 9-11 ashes symbolized to me.

Although launching the 9-11 ashes was a giant moment for me, it was a small part of the launch itself. So many other precious payloads were onboard. Chris Pancratz, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society, flew, and another portion of his cremains will be on the next Celestis payload on the Falcon 1 launching from Vandenberg. Chris will be remembered dearly by members of the NSS. He was very helpful to our NYC chapter, always listening to our ideas with enthusiasm.

Understandably, the reason for the massive amount of media present was that James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek) flew, as well as Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper. Their widows were both present and spoke eloquently at the service. We were all honored to be part of this, not only as Star Trek fans and space nuts, but the press was also welcome, and they were open to listening to everyone’s stories. Several networks interviewed me about the 9-11 ashes, which is something I originally meant to keep private. The enthusiasm was so tremendous that I felt open to sharing my story in hopes that it may help others feel closure about the tragic event as well. This, along with hundreds of other loved ones’ cremains, student experiments, and the historic nature of the flight in general, must have weighed heavily on the shoulders of those responsible for carrying out the flight.

I finally got to light a properly sized candle, and get my long awaited closure for 9-11.

The launch itself went very smoothly except for brief periods where tracking was lost, but perhaps that was a normal situation. The sounding rocket flew over the Organ Mountains and into White Sands Missile Range, where they regained tracking in plenty of time for the landing. The rocket split in two, opened two parachutes and landed in the Missile Range where they have a vast amount of experience in payload recovery. The amount of empty land, clear skies, and a missile range just over the mountains that can coordinate on missions such as this make this the perfect site for a private spaceport. Space enthusiasts will appreciate this flight for showing a business model for future business in space. Celestis, who was a customer of UP Aerospace, prides itself on being a quality funeral service that just so happens to do business in space. Local industry, such as the vendors at the launch site, nearby hotels and restaurants in Hatch, Las Cruces, and Alamagordo, all benefited from the event.

In closing, it may be interesting to describe the atmosphere along the dusty drive to the spaceport. It is as in-the-middle-of-nowhere as you can get within the United States. At one point, as we drove to and from the site, several beautiful horses crossed the road. They must belong to one of the local ranches. Shortly after that, four cows sauntered along the road blocking our car. Jackrabbits and lizards scurried across the road in front of us, having a lot more sense of “getting out of the way” than the cows did. A turtle tried to find shade under my Dad’s car. Along the way were police to wave us along, which was reassuring when the only other clues are tiny little signs that read “Spaceport America” with an arrow, every so often. At one point you have to drive through a rancher’s gate, into his yard, to get to the rest of the road. Of course, nothing is paved and massive amounts of dust gets stirred up as cars go by. This will all change. Although it was within an uncomfortably small margin, the spaceport tax bill just passed earlier last month!

What else is one to do if lighting a little birthday candle in Union Square does not fit the bill of mourning such a horribly dark day? I finally got to light a properly sized candle, and get my long awaited closure for 9-11. I want to thank UP Aerospace for providing the candle, and Celestis for the opportunity.