The UPAerospace launch from Spaceport America on April 28, just outside of LasCruces, New Mexico, was historic for many reasons, which one could guess by theamount of media attention it drew. It was the first launch from the spaceportthat actually went into space!
The targetedtrajectory would bring it up to a 70 mile apogee, but rumor has it,it went nearly 80 miles. There were 200 cremains on a payload just below thenose cone, behind a painted American flag, courtesy of Celestis - http://www.memorialspaceflights.com/legacy.asp.There were also student experiments aboard.
Among theashes were a portion of what I collected off of my car windshield wiper onSeptember 11, 2001, in Park Slope Brooklyn, a mile and a half directly downwindof Ground Zero. I had collected the ashes in hopes of getting them tested tosee what poisons they might contain. It dawned on me some years later that Icould use Celestis' service to finally get the closure I longed for. Like manyNew Yorkers, I never had a "normal" way of mourning the tragedy.Launching the ashes represented the fact that we will not let terrorism (or anyterrestrial issues for that matter) deter us from thinking about the future ina positive way. It symbolized lighting a giant candle in memory of that day andthe hard times that followed. I invited my friends who had also suffered agreat deal from 9-11 to find their own meaning in the launch. Unfortunatelynone of them could make it, being the hard working New Yorkers they are, but I wason the phone with several of them and it really lifted their spirits.
Originallythe 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 a portionof their payload to the smaller UP Aerospace rocket.
Not onlywas this convenient for my family, who still live in Las Cruces, but the launchwas very meaningful to me for a few reasons. I have been following the progressof privatespace companies for 15 years, and have been a fan of the XPrize competitionsince 1996, which in large part helped to make this space port a reality. Italso felt very close to home when I was interviewed by a local film crewCelestis hired to cover the event, and the man holding the microphone was thedrummer in my first rock band that performed in Las Cruces in the early 1980s!Since those early days I have found my place in the world writing space-themedmusic, mainly in a band called ZIA, which I named after the New Mexico stateflag in 1991, a Navajo Sun symbol that I always felt looked like a verticallaunch pad. The fact that so much is happening for space just outside of myhome town is both amazing and surreal.
Oneadvantage of launching a portion of the ashes on UP Aerospace's rocket is thatwe will all get our payloads back after they have flown into space. When theashes are returned, I will be giving a commemorative plaque to Rudy Giuliani tothank him for keeping New Yorkers sane after that horrible day. His leadershipwill never be forgotten. I will present the ashes in a special display toPresident George Bush to thank him for promoting an initiative for ongoinghuman space flight beyond Earth orbit
during thistime of war. One thing that brought me out of my shock and made me finally shedmuch needed tears after 9-11 was when I saw the first war protests in UnionSquare. I thought surely, if we go to war at this point in time, we will nothave the resources to send humans to space for a very long time. Like manypeople I know, my life revolves around the prospect of humans eventuallygetting into space permanently.
WhenPresident Bush announced his New Vision for SpaceExploration Program in January of 2004, I felt great satisfaction inknowing that even if his plan does not follow through with perfection, at leastsomeone in power is pushing the initiative. And should the government not takethe reins, over the course of the last few years we have seen private spacecompanies build real hardware - and real spaceships that have already carriedhumans into space. We are not giving up on space - no matter what - and that iswhat the launch of these 9-11 ashes symbolized to me.
Althoughlaunching the 9-11 ashes was a giant moment for me, it was a small part of thelaunch itself. So many other precious payloads were onboard. Chris Pancratz,Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society, flew, andanother portion of his cremains will be on the next Celestis payload on theFalcon 1 launching from Vandenberg.
Chris willbe remembered dearly by members of the NSS. He was very helpful to our NYCChapter, always listening to our ideas with enthusiasm.
Understandably,the reason for the massive amount of media attention 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 allhonored to be part of this, not only as Star Trek fans and space nuts, but thepress 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 Ioriginally meant to keep private. The enthusiasm was so tremendous that I feltopen to sharing my story in hopes that it may help others feel closure aboutthe tragic event as well. This, along with hundreds of other loved ones' cremains,student experiments, and the historic nature of the flight in general, musthave weighed heavily on the shoulders of those responsible for carrying out theflight.
The launchitself went very smoothly except for brief periods where tracking was lost, butperhaps that was a normal situation. The sounding rocket flew over the OrganMountains and into White Sands Missile Range where they regained tracking inplenty of time for the landing. The rocket split in two, opened two parachutesand landed in the Missile Range where they have a vast amount of experience inpayload recovery. The amount of empty land, clear skies, and a missile rangejust over the mountains that can coordinate on missions such as this make this theperfect site for a private spaceport. Space enthusiasts will appreciate thisflight 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 servicethat happens to do business in space. Local industry such as the vendors at thelaunch site, nearby hotels and restaurants in Hatch, Las Cruces and Alamogordoall benefited from the event.
In closing,it may be interesting to describe the atmosphere along the dusty drive to thespaceport. It is as in-the-middle-of-nowhere as you can get within the UnitedStates. At one point, as we drove to and from the site, several beautifulhorses crossed the road. They must belong to one of the local ranches. Shortlyafter that, four cows sauntered along the road blocking our car. Jackrabbitsand lizards scurried across the road in front of us, having a lot more sense of"getting out of the way" than the
cows did. Aturtle tried to find shade under my Dad's car. Along the way were police towave us along, which was reassuring when the only other clues are tiny littlesigns that read "Spaceport America" with an arrow, every so often. Atone point you have to drive through a rancher's gate, into his yard, to get tothe rest of the road. Of course, nothing is paved and massive amounts of dustgets stirred up as cars go by. This will all change. Although it was within anuncomfortably small margin, the spaceport tax bill justpassed last month!
What elseis one to do if lighting a little birthday candle in Union Square does not fitthe bill of mourning such a horribly dark day? I finally got to light aproperly sized candle, and get my long-awaited closure for 9-11. I want tothank UP Aerospace for providing the candle, and Celestis for the opportunity.When the Falcon 1 lifts off from
VandenbergAir Force Base later this year, I will get to light an even bigger candle anddream of our future in space when the payload re-enters the atmosphere like ashooting star.
Elaine Walker serves as aNational Space Society Region 8 Chapters organizer.
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NOTE: The views of thisarticle are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National SpaceSociety.
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