Suborbital Rocket Launches With Student Experiments, Human Ashes Onboard
The wispy trail from the early morning liftoff of UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL booster at Spaceport America was a crowd-pleaser. The rocket carried student experiments and human ashes on a suborbital flight.
Credit: Barbara David

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico ? A small rocket carrying student experiments and the cremated remains of 21 people successfully launched on a memorial suborbital spaceflight Tuesday and landed smoothly in New Mexico.

The early morning launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket was staged from Spaceport America ? a remote site outside Upham, New Mexico that is now a scene of fast-paced construction. Spaceport America is tagged as the first purpose-built commercial space facility.

The mission was primarily aimed at flying a suite of student-built experiments dubbed the New Mexico Second Annual Education Launch. The project, sponsored by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University, included high school, college and university investigations from across the state.

Loved ones onboard

The launch carried capsules packed with cremated remains from the United States, China, Taiwan, and Great Britain. After the flight the containers were recovered and will be returned to the families of ?Pioneer Flight? participants.

There were 21 participants on this mission, noted Charles Chafer, chief executive officer of Celestis, Incorporated of Houston. Celestis helps families honor the memory of loved ones through unique, post-cremation memorial spaceflights.

?We are very pleased to share today?s success with our families and partners at New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and UP Aerospace and look forward to many more successful missions in the future,? Chafer told SPACE.com. ?The Celestis service remains the most compelling memorial service on or off the planet,? he added.

The flight was an Earth Rise (suborbital) mission offered by Celestis. The group worked with the primary sponsor of the mission -- the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium -- by providing matching funds that assisted students to launch their experiments into space.

High-speed trajectory

The rocket launch showcased a new era of access to space for student experiments.

?Today is all about what Spaceport America was created for?about education, it?s about jobs, it is about careers and new opportunities in New Mexico,? said Rick Homans, Board Chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority shortly after the rocket?s launch and payload landing.

?I?m speechless. It was a perfect flight,? said Jerry Larson, president of Colorado-based UP Aerospace. He told SPACE.com that the mission was a total success from liftoff to touchdown, landing only two miles from the target 35 miles away on White Sands Missile Range.

Lockheed Martin provided a pre-launch mission assurance review of the booster, appraising the readiness for flight of the entire rocket - from avionics to parachute deployments.

In a post-launch review, Larson said the rocket reached 70 miles altitude, hitting a top velocity of Mach 5.5 ? five and a half times the speed of sound. ?So she was really cooking,? Larson added.

The booster?s solid rocket motor burned for 12 seconds on a high-speed trajectory followed by a long coast period. A parachute system led to touchdown of the payload at nearby White Sands Missile Range at a very modest 10 miles per hour.

?It was a nice soft landing. Your payloads are going to be perfect,? Larson advised the students during his debriefing remarks.

Student access to space

??Today?s launch is confirmation to New Mexico?s students and the rest of the world that we are capable of delivering the goods when it comes to scientific development, aerospace research and intellectual capital,? said Pat Hynes, Director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium in a press statement.

Hynes said that the launch was dedicated to the memory of Debbie Prell, a Farmington, New Mexico science and technology teacher who died of breast cancer in 2005.

Launch participants wore special pink shirts in memory of Prell. The specially-designed T-shirts read: ?Rocket Scientists are Tough Enough to Wear Pink.?

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.