April 22, 1997 in Nation/World

‘Ashtronauts’ Take Off For The Great Beyond

Marlise Simons New York Times
 

Toward the end of his life, Timothy Leary talked of death as the final trip and of outer space as the great new frontier. On Monday, 10 months after “de-animating,” as he called it, he left this planet with a blast, on his next adventure.

In a new episode in space travel, not to mention the funeral business, a rocket carrying a capsule of his ashes and those of 23 others was launched from Grand Canary Island off the Moroccan coast.

The remains, taken aloft in an American Pegasus rocket, will orbit every 90 minutes for perhaps two years, perhaps as many as 10.

Leary, who died last May after decades of surprising and outraging Americans with his advocacy of mind expansion through drug use, finally left this Earth in auspicious company. Also aloft in the world’s first space funeral were fragments of Gene Roddenberry, who created the “Star Trek” television series; Gerard O’Neill, a space physicist; and scientists and pilots.

One vial held the remains of a Japanese-American boy, 4, from New York, who his parents said “loved to talk about the stars.”

The official purpose of the rocket, launched from a Lockheed L-1011 airplane, was to put Spain’s first satellite into space. But bolted to the rocket’s third-stage motor was a canister containing the ashes of the “ashtronauts,” each in a lipstick-size aluminum capsule.

“They look like little cocaine vials, which is kind of hysterical in Timothy’s case,” said Carol Rosin, a friend, who had accompanied the ashes.

Each capsule is inscribed with the person’s name and a personal message.

Leary’s vial read: “Peace Love Light YouMeOne.”

The arrangements were made by Celestis Inc. of Houston. For its “memorial service in space,” Celestis charged $4,800 per vial, which includes the fare paid to Orbital Sciences Corp., the spacecraft’s owner.

Rosin said she felt “honored and awed” that she had been “able to get a portion of Timothy into space.” In his later years, she said, he was deeply interested not only in “inner space” but in the heavens.

“When Timothy learned that he would go into space along with other pioneers,” she said, “he was so excited he jumped up and down in his wheelchair.”

“He was also thrilled that he would not become space junk,” said Rosin. She noted that in its promotional video, Celestis said the rocket’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere would create such friction that the vehicle would burn up.

For Leary, she said, the video reached its high point when it showed a rocket re-entering the atmosphere with a great burst of light. “That’s it!” he shouted. “We are all light! We are all light-bearers and we must shine it on others!”

The others whose remains were along on the ride shared Leary’s interest in space, if not all of his ideas about its uses.

Gerard O’Neill, a physicist, had wanted his ashes scattered on a space colony, but given the long wait, his relatives went with this option, said Charles Chafer, a co-owner of Celestis.

Relatives of Roddenberry, who died in 1991, sent his ashes traveling on a space shuttle, but they were returned to Earth.

“It struck me that all 24 on the flight are men,” said Chafer, “yet most of the contacts or the decisions were made by women. And in one way or another they said that in a spiritual sense this was a great way for their loved ones to join the universe.”

Chafer, who has long been involved with space projects, said it was unfortunate that all the “founders,” however deeply they had been interested in the space program, could only make their journey in death. “That’s all that’s possible at the moment,” he added, “until space travel becomes normal.”

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

Cut in Spokane edition

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus