The show Star Trek and the character Scotty may have been fictional (sorry to spoil that), but actor James Doohan was real — and now he’s really in space.
The story is slightly spoiled by the fact that Doohan died seven years ago, though had he still been alive the trip would have been impossible. That’s because Doohan is among 308 people whose ashes have now been sent into orbit on Falcon 9, a rocket produced by the commercial project Space X.
Only a portion of Doohan’s ashes — and those of the other “passengers” — are on board. Another portion went up in a previous failed attempt to reach orbit in 2008.
Since then the project has achieved orbit on several launches. This time round the rocket carried an unmanned capsule, Dragon, which has now separated and is in orbit itself. (The picture above shows Falcon 9 and Dragon on a previous test launch.) If all goes to plan, on Friday Dragon will become the first commercial object to dock at the International Space Station.
If the docking works, it could be an important milestone for commercial space operations. The aim is to eventually make it possible to run a business carrying freight and even passengers to the ISS, with a $1.6 billion contract with NASA on the cards. This time around the capsule is only carrying clothing, food and laptop batteries to the ISS, none of which is critical to operations. It should return carrying equipment from space station tests that is no longer needed, along with gloves belonging to previous ISS visitors.
The ashes are largely of people whose families have paid $3,000 for their “seat” with a company named Celestis. While 208 of them are getting a free second attempt after the 2008 failure, there is one genuine return visitor. Gordon Cooper was the youngest of the seven astronauts among the first series of orbital flights, the first American to sleep while in orbit, and was one of two astronauts on a test flight to make sure humans could survive in space long enough to visit the Moon and return.
Cooper’s ashes, and those of the other “passengers”, were stored in a separate capsule that is now also in independent orbit. It’s expected to last for around a year before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.