LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - A privately-built rocket blasted off from New Mexico's Spaceport America Saturday, roaring skyward to the edge of space carrying a variety of payloads - including the ashes of Star Trek's "Scotty" James Doohan and NASA Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper.
A SpaceLoft XL rocket shot upwards on a suborbital trajectory, launched by UP Aerospace, a Connecticut-based company. The mission - labeled SL-2 - was loaded with an array of educational investigations, as well as commercial and entrepreneurial payloads.
For example, 800 students from teams around the country and the world, including Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Netherlands, developed and designed 44 scientific experiments for the SL-2 mission.
Another SL-2 payload was designed by the University of Colorado at Boulder, in tandem with NASA Space Grant. Flown as a proof-of-concept, the "RocketSat" payload consisted of several experiments including a GPS receiver and a video camera.
Also onboard was Astrata/RocketFoto, initiated as a start-up enterprise that sends personal photos on round-trip space missions for its customers.
The SpaceLoft XL mission also marked the first Legacy Flight - a new service provided by Celestis Incorporated of Houston, Texas. That firm launches the cremated remains of individuals into space.
SpaceLoft XL is a 20-foot (6 meters) tall, single-stage solid-fuel rocket.
As the flagship vehicle for UP Aerospace, the SpaceLoft XL can be packed with up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of payloads. The rocket is built to reach an altitude capability of up to 140 miles (225 kilometers).
UP Aerospace is gearing up for future launches from Spaceport America, a site dubbed as the world's first "purpose-built" - or built from scratch --commercial spaceport.
Spaceport America is being erected 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles north of Las Cruces. In a few years, the intention is that Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceline will be whisking paying customers on suborbital trajectories from the site - one of many groups expected to utilize the desert facility.
This was the second rocket liftoff for UP Aerospace from Spaceport America.
Last September, the firm's SpaceLoft XL encountered problems shortly after blastoff, corkscrewing in the air at high altitude, then came crashing down onto terra firma after 90 seconds of flight.
An intensive study of the mishap revealed issues with the rocket's fin section. An aerodynamic stability margin in the rocket was found to be too low, coupled with the vehicle incorrectly designed not to spin fast enough on its ascent.
Corrections were made for today's return to flight of the SpaceLoft XL.
Earth Rise Service
Onboard today's mission were the ashes of Star Trek's "Scotty" James Doohan and NASA Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper - joining the cremated remains of more than 200 other people from all walks of life.
A pre-launch Celestis Earth Rise Service was held April 27 at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in neighboring Alamogordo<. >
Charles Chafer, chief executive officer of Space Services Inc. that operates Celestis spoke of the "precious payload" carried by the SpaceLoft XL, including over 12,000 digitized messages and tributes to Doohan and Cooper from all over the world. "They will fly along with them in spirit and in reality," he said.
Wende Doohan, the wife of the Star Trek actor, spoke of her late husband: "It's not how you die, or when, but rather how you lived." In his role, Scotty was "engineer extraordinaire", she continued, completing his five year mission in three years and that "he's in good company on this flight."
Suzan Cooper, the wife of the late Gordon Cooper explained: "Supposedly, we are all made of stardust. So then it is only natural to one day return to the stars once our lives have ended on this Earth."
"We are all here to celebrate the lives of friends and loved ones...and to embrace an incredible new technology which allows anyone to leave the boundaries of Earth and actually travel into space," Cooper said.
Incoming director of Spaceport America, Rick Homans, also took part in the Celestis memorial service. "This Legacy launch is clearly filled with all kinds of emotion...memory...and an all encompassing sense of adventure," he said.
Homans noted that today's rocket liftoff meant that the first astronauts will have gone to space departing from Spaceport America. "While they are not physically present, their strong characters and adventuresome spirits are all around us."
It was all happy contrails today for UP Aerospace.
With Suzan Cooper and Wende Doohan pushing the launch button together, the SpaceLoft XL quickly skyrocketed off its launch pad.
"We did it. We did it," cried out Eric Knight, chief executive officer for UP Aerospace, as their firm's rocket plowed through the atmosphere and slipped into the edge of space.
"The vehicle is in space. We have confirmation from radar track that the vehicle is now in space," announced Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace over a loud speaker from his mission control seat. At its peak altitude, the rocket had hit 384,000 feet, exceeding expectations in the process.
As the SpaceLoft XL began its descent back to Earth, word that parachutes had deployed and that the rocket body and payload section were on the ground were greeted with more applause.
"This Spaceport America is now a real spaceport," Larson stated in post-launch press briefing. "It reached space and we also know that the vehicle landed right on its target spot on White Sands Missile Range."
Chafter of Celestis spotlighted the flight of some 202 individuals onboard the rocket and its spurt to space.
"Every time we do this, the family members make it worthwhile because you just see the joy on their faces coming out of the tragedy of the life that they lost. It's unbelievably rewarding," Chafer told SPACE.com.
For Elaine Walker of Phoenix>, Arizona, the successful launch brought her back to a dark time. She was living in Brooklyn, New York when 9/11 happened with ashes resulting from the attack on the World Trade Center towers fluttering through the sky and snowing to the ground.
"I took a few grams of it off my car windshield wiper. It dawned on me a couple years later that I had never actually gotten proper closure. It was such a dark, strange event. It's not like I could go to a funeral...lighting candles didn't do it for me," Walker told SPACE.com.
But launching about a gram of her collected 9/11 ashes into space today seemed like the perfect closure for Walker, a musician and space activist.
"This is kind of like taking those ashes and saying we're not going to let 9/11 deter us from thinking about the future...of going into space," Walker said.