The remains of a variety of noteworthy figures, including President George Washington and John F. Kennedy, Star Trek cast members Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and James Doohan who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, and even Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry are on their way to deep space compliments of a successful launch performed by United Launch Alliance (ULA) this week. The remains, ranging from cremated ashes to strands of hair, were launched into space atop a ULA Vulcan Rocket as part of a mission developed by Celestis. The rocket also carried the Peregrine Lunar Lander into its proper orbit; however, a technical glitch with that spacecraft has doomed that particular mission. While Peregrine experienced trouble, the mission to send remains deep into space wasn’t impacted.
Tory Bruno, President and CEO of ULA, confirmed on X a short time ago that Celestis packed into the Vulcan Rocket is traveling deep into space as planned. Bruno wrote, “Perfect insertion. Now sailing the endless seas of space, until the end of time.”
This first Celestis Voyager Memorial Spaceflight, named the Enterprise Flight, is due to travel up to 185 million miles from Earth into deep space. Celestis wrote in program literature that “participant’s DNA or cremated remains will soar on this mission into deep space on an infinite journey of tribute and remembrance.” This inaugural Celestis Voyager Service is one of the first of humanity to embark on a journey this far from home.
The Enterprise Flight contains 265 capsules with human remains as well as DNA samples from former U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, George Washington, and Dwight Eisenhower. Also on-board are the remains of Philip Chapman, who was selected for the NASA astronaut corps in 1967 for the Apollo mission, but never flew to space. He died in 2021. Celestis has published details on participants on their first flight on their website.
“We’re very pleased to be fulfilling, with this mission, a promise I made to Majel Barrett Roddenberry in 1997 that one day we would fly her and husband Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry together on a deep space memorial spaceflight,” said Celestis Co-Founder and CEO Charles M. Chafer. “We look forward to launching this historic mission on a rocket named Vulcan, ” he said.
“We are honored that Celestis has selected ULA to launch this important mission,” said Bruno at the time of launch partner selection. “What a fitting tribute to the Roddenberry family and the Star Trek fans to be a part of the maiden flight of Vulcan, our next-generation rocket.”
Vulcan Centaur’s maiden flight showcased its tremendous performance as it entered service with a high-energy interplanetary mission. Vulcan first put Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander on a trajectory for its rendezvous with the Moon. The Centaur upper stage then continued into deep space, entering a stable orbit around the sun, with Celestis’ Memorial Spaceflight Payload on-board.
While Celestis had success, Peregrine ran into problems after successful placement into its planned translunar trajectory by the ULA rocket. Peregrine Mission One, or the Peregrine Lunar Lander flight 01, is a lunar lander built by Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic Technology selected as a part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). Peregrine was the first U.S.-built lunar lander launched since the crewed Lunar Module from the Apollo program. Shortly after separation from the rocket, an anomaly occurred with its propulsion system and the attempt to land on the Moon had to be abandoned.
While the lunar lander failed, many are excited at the prospects of a new type of post-life / post-funeral planning. Instead of pursuing a traditional burial or memorial service for their loved ones, more and more people are looking up for their funeral plans. The idea of sending the dearly departed to space has been around for a while; it became a reality when the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry were aboard a NASA Space Shuttle Columbia mission in 1992. Since then, more and more people have had the honor of seeing their loved ones’ ashes transported to the heavens thanks in part to companies like Celestis Memorial Spaceflights which offer the service. Celestis, like Elsyium Space, are offering the opportunity for literally an out-of-this-world memorial experience.
Established in 1994, Celestis Memorial Spaceflights offers many memorial options for cremated remains to be launched to the stars. Small capsules which contain remains have the opportunity to be sent to the edge of the atmosphere before returning to Earth, orbit the Earth for a period of time, sent to the moon, or even be launched deep into space. Loved ones have the chance to both retrieve and display the remains once they return or track them on their eternal journey as they leave Earth forever.
For Lucy Wolt, this seemed like the perfect tribute for her father who passed away in 2016. Wolt discovered the memorial space flights after a friend who worked for NASA told her about it; she knew it would be a perfect way to celebrate the life of her father, Robert Thomas Winpenny. Wolt told us a bit about her beloved father. Robert loved astronomy and spent many nights either staring up into the night sky or watching a space launch live on TV. At age 8, he swore he spotted a UFO and even though others didn’t believe him, that didn’t stop him from wanting to explore the universe. He even engineered a few model rockets himself . While her father wasn’t aware of Celestis at the time of his passing, Lucy Wolt tells us it’s likely something he’d want to pursue. The New York resident tells us, “I actually wish he was a part of it because if he would have known about it, he would have went for it.”
The memorial launch was a success and Wolt believes her father would approve. “This is something I think dad would really want: a part of him got to reach space.” Wolt said her launch rocket worked perfectly when it took his remains up to the edge of the atmosphere; her father’s remains were briefly in space before returning to Earth.
Of the services and packages Celestis offers, Wolt selected the “Earth Rise Service” for her father. Wolt attended the launch with other families celebrating the lives of their lost loved ones too. As with any space launch, this was a long time coming and there was no guarantee it would take place until the last minute. “The main issue in the beginning was the flight was delayed for about two years,” Wolt told us. “He died in 2016 and it didn’t happen until 2018.”
Celestis builds a ceremony around the rocket launch, with families traveling long distances to the launch location near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico. At the pre-launch ceremony, each family member had a chance to speak about their loved one. “We all had that common bond as to why we were there,” Wolt said, adding that her two sons joined her for the occasion. “We were sharing stories, hugging one another; it was like they were all long lost family members.”
After memories were shared and a 5am bus ride to a safe viewing area, the mission was launched. Excitement filled the air as the rocket blazed towards space. “I had the butterflies and everybody was screaming. Reaching their hands up to the sky.” Wolt said as the rocket ascended to the edge of the atmosphere, “We just watched it, it was crazy, it was beautiful.”
The small container that contained the remains of Robert Thomas Winpenny was launched briefly out of this world and is now back with Lucy and proudly displayed next to a picture and plaque memorializing that day. “I just look at it and remember about the day I was there,” she said.
Wolt recommends the experience to others that have a passion for space. “If you have the means to then do it. It’s a beautiful tribute to anyone who has an interest in space or love of science.”
For more than 20 years, Celestis has been conducting these missions to honor peoples’ final wishes. Clients have included people from all walks of life, as well as leaders in science and exploration, the aerospace industry, NASA, entertainment & film, education, and military service. According to the Celestis website, space memorials start at $5,000. While space debris is a growing concern, Celestis says that their “missions are governed by international treaty and US law” and add that their “services do not contribute to orbital debris, do not generate distracting light pollution, or otherwise adversely affect the space environment.”