LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - A privately-built rocket blastedoff 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 astronautGordon Cooper.
A SpaceLoft XL rocket shotupwards on a suborbital trajectory, launched by UP Aerospace, aConnecticut-based company. The mission - labeled SL-2 - was loaded with an arrayof educational investigations, as well as commercial and entrepreneurialpayloads.
Forexample, 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.
AnotherSL-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" payloadconsisted of several experiments including a GPS receiver and a video camera.
Alsoonboard was Astrata/RocketFoto,initiated as a start-up enterprise that sends personal photos on round-tripspace missions for its customers.
The SpaceLoft XL missionalso 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 theflagship vehicle for UP Aerospace, the SpaceLoft XL can be packed with up to110 pounds (50 kilograms) of payloads. The rocket is built to reach an altitudecapability of up to 140 miles (225 kilometers).
UP Aerospaceis gearing up for future launches from Spaceport America,a site dubbed as the world's first "purpose-built" - or built from scratch--commercial spaceport.
SpaceportAmerica is being erected 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences and 45miles north of Las Cruces. In a few years, the intention is that Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceline will bewhisking paying customers on suborbital trajectories from the site - one ofmany groups expected to utilize the desert facility.
This wasthe second rocket liftoff for UP Aerospace from Spaceport America.
LastSeptember, the firm's SpaceLoft XL encounteredproblems shortly after blastoff, corkscrewing in the air at high altitude,then came crashing down onto terra firma after 90 seconds of flight.
Anintensive study of the mishap revealed issues with the rocket's fin section. Anaerodynamic stability margin in the rocket was found to be too low, coupledwith the vehicle incorrectly designed not to spin fast enough on its ascent.
Correctionswere made for today's return to flight of the SpaceLoft XL.
Onboardtoday's mission were the ashes of StarTrek's "Scotty" James Doohan and NASA Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper - joining the cremated remains ofmore than 200 other people from all walks of life.
Apre-launch Celestis Earth Rise Service was held April 27 at the New Mexico Museum of Space Historyin neighboring Alamogordo<. >
CharlesChafer, chief executive officer of Space Services Inc. that operates Celestis spoke ofthe "precious payload" carried by the SpaceLoft XL, including over 12,000digitized messages and tributes to Doohan and Cooper from all over the world. "They will flyalong 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 yearmission in three years and that "he's in good company on this flight."
SuzanCooper, the wife of the late Gordon Cooper explained: "Supposedly, we are allmade of stardust. So then it is only natural to one day return to the starsonce our lives have ended on this Earth."
"We are allhere to celebrate the lives of friends and loved ones...and to embrace anincredible new technology which allows anyone to leave the boundaries of Earthand actually travel into space," Cooper said.
Incomingdirector of Spaceport America, Rick Homans, also took part in the Celestismemorial service. "This Legacy launch is clearly filled with all kinds ofemotion...memory...and an all encompassing sense of adventure," he said.
Homansnoted that today's rocket liftoff meant that the first astronauts will havegone to space departing from Spaceport America. "While they are not physically present, their strong characters andadventuresome spirits are all around us."
It was allhappy contrails today for UP Aerospace.
With SuzanCooper 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, astheir firm's rocket plowed through the atmosphere and slipped into the edge ofspace.
"Thevehicle is in space. We have confirmation from radar track that the vehicle isnow in space," announced Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace over a loudspeaker from his mission control seat. At its peak altitude, the rocket had hit384,000 feet, exceeding expectations in the process.
As the SpaceLoft XL beganits descent back to Earth, word that parachutes had deployed and that therocket body and payload section were on the ground were greeted with moreapplause.
"ThisSpaceport America is now a real spaceport," Larson stated in post-launch pressbriefing. "It reached space and we also know that the vehicle landed right onits target spot on White Sands Missile Range."
Chafter of Celestis spotlighted the flight of some 202 individuals onboard the rocket and its spurtto space.
"Every timewe do this, the family members make it worthwhile because you just see the joyon their faces coming out of the tragedy of the life that they lost. It'sunbelievably rewarding," Chafer told SPACE.com.
For ElaineWalker 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 ashesresulting from the attack on the World Trade Center towers fluttering through the sky and snowing to the ground.
"I took afew grams of it off my car windshield wiper. It dawned on me a couple yearslater 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 doit for me," Walker told SPACE.com.
Butlaunching about a gram of her collected 9/11 ashes into space today seemed likethe perfect closure for Walker, a musician and space activist.
"This iskind of like taking those ashes and saying we're not going to let 9/11 deter usfrom thinking about the future...of going into space," Walker said.