Beaming Up Scotty

  • Share
  • Read Later
AFP / Getty

Capsules that will hold the ashes of 187 people whose families have paid between $995 and $5,300 to launch them into space on board a rocket.

More than once, Rhonda and Dick Archbold had talked about taking a vacation in space, hoping the opportunity would arise in their lifetimes. Unfortunately for Rhonda, it didn't: She died of a heart attack 17 months ago at her home in Stockton, California, at age 52. Having missed out on space travel in life, Rhonda's husband plans to offer her the next best thing on Saturday, when one gram of her cremated ashes soars into the heavens aboard a SpaceLoft XL rocket from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

Dick Archbold, a Stockton lawyer, will be joined by Rhonda's son, Dan, in the early morning crowd watching the launch, fingers crossed for a successful mission. Last fall, the first SpaceLoft flight ended moments after it began when the telephone-pole-sized rocket spiraled erratically before plummeting to earth. After reviewing the flight data, the solution was obvious, says Eric Knight, co-founder of UP Aerospace, the Connecticut firm that built the rocket. It needed a fourth tail fin. Many computer simulations confirmed his diagnosis and Saturday's flight went off without a hitch.

The remains of Rhonda Archbold ascended along with the ashes of 201 others, including former astronaut L. Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, better known as "Scotty" in the original Star Trek television series. The space-bound ashes were packed into lipstick-sized cylinders, each inscribed with a brief tribute by their loved ones.

Also on board were 45 experiments designed by students from across the United States and the Netherlands. They will be testing such things as the integrity of toothpaste, contact lenses, seeds and popcorn, as well as whether the radiation of space will affect the magnetic strip on a bank-issued gift card. A group of 12- and 13-year-olds from Joseph Haydnschool in Groningen, the Netherlands, want to see if mineral oil and water, liquids that don't mix in earth's atmosphere, will combine in the weightlessness of space. The Dutch teachers planned to be at the launch, along with some of the 800 American student scientists.

Wende Doohan, widow of "Scotty," launced the rocket and astronaut Cooper's widow, Suzan, was also on hand with her daughters to see her husband become the first U.S. astronaut to return to space in the afterlife. "Obviously, I'll be revisiting some old emotions, but this will be nowhere as emotional as it was watching him go into space when he was alive," she said before the launch.

Sending his wife into space as a posthumous celebration of her life on earth was an easy decision for Archbold, who paid $1,400 to Celestis, a company that pioneered memorial space flights in the 1990s. She had been a Star Trek fan since the first series on television and dragged her husband to many Trekkie conventions, where they had often seen "Scotty."

"We both grew up fascinated by the Apollo astronauts and space travel," he says. "I can't think of a greater adventure for her."

Saturday's flight may be Rhonda's first venture into space, but it won't be her last. As part of the package purchased by her husband, this fall her ashes will be inserted into a module attached to a satellite and will orbit earth at least one time before vaporizing upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. She may no longer be alive to savor the experience, but Rhonda Archbold is finally exploring the final frontier.