Unfulfilled space funeral for "Scotty": words from his son.

[ Editor's note: Actor James Doohan was best known in life for his role as "Scotty" on Star Trek. Since his passing, it seems he has been most often spoken of in the context of a planned "space funeral" he requested in his will. That wish has not yet been fulfilled, despite repeated attempts.

Doohan's family provided a portion of his ashes to Celestis, Inc., a subdivision of the Houston-based company Space Services which offers "post-cremation memorial spaceflights." This Saturday, August 2, 2008, those remains were part of the payload for a SpaceX rocket that didn't make it into orbit because of technical problems.

There have been previous attempts to send Doohan posthumously to the stars, one of which ended with the eventual recovery of the rocket's payload, including those ashes. The remains of astronaut Gordon Cooper were also destined for this same service. I understand that both Cooper and Doohan's surviving kin are receiving the memorial services as a gift, but the company has paying customers, too.

Space is tough. Of all the unusual and technically-specific ways to memorialize a loved one (morph their ash into a man-made diamond; mix it with concrete to seed a coral reef), ascending to orbit is probably the most complicated, and the most vulnerable to technical unknowns. The human remains, you could say, are just another payload. The odds for getting any new kind of craft into space are hard. Historically, there is much failure before there is success.

But families want honor and closure when a loved one passes on. One of James Doohan's seven children is a Boing Boing reader, and part of our extended community of friends and kindred happy mutants. I asked him if he would share his thoughts with us, and he very generously obliged. Below, his words. — XJ ]


My father loved engineering. Anything he could do to visit NASA, an aircraft carrier, a submarine, he'd do it. There was no end to the enjoyment he received when people would come up to him and say, "I'm an engineer because of you." So when a company in Texas offered to launch his remains into orbit, we could only accept.

It's been just over 3 years since my dad, James Doohan, passed on. In that time, there have been many memorials, the most recent of which to commemorate Linlithgow, Scotland, as the future birthplace of Scotty. But his launch into space was the most publicized, and it was to be the most significant.

There have been many attempts to send my father on his way. On Saturday, the latest launch attempt by SpaceX, with a portion of my father's remains aboard, failed to achieve orbit. While there are many complicated reasons why this is a disappointment, mine is simple: I'd like to finish saying goodbye.

Every launch attempt is like reliving his funeral. There's a lot of pomp and ceremony, and a retelling of his deeds in life. But at the end of these funerals, something goes awry, the body doesn't get buried, and you know you're going to have to come back to do it over again.

I'm not laying blame on anyone for the delays. It's difficult, living on the cusp of technology. Where most of us lament the premature obsolescence of our cell phones, there are those few of us who've pinned the memories of our family members on a rocket, hoping it will touch the sky.

My dad believed in human ingenuity, and he believed in mankind's destiny beyond the exosphere. That it would take several attempts in these early stages to successfully achieve orbit would not have phased him. I can accept this, because of who he was, and because he knew it was all a part of progress.

For those reasons, I know that his spirit will persevere, and others will keep those launch attempts coming. The act of sending a loved one's remains into space will someday be commonplace, even if we have to book a space flight ourselves to make it happen. That's the kind of progress my father believed in.

But I'm not sure I can hang on until then. Grieving can't wait for the pace of progress, and I have to say goodbye now. So when news of the next launch rolls around, please don't ask me about it; I won't be paying attention.

If my father has anything to do with it, though, I'm sure that ship will get where it's going.

Ehrich Blackhound

(Image: courtesy of Wende Doohan and the Doohan family. Thank you, Ehrich.)

UPDATE: John Schwartz has an update piece at the New York Times' LEDE blog which includes a comment from the folks at Celestis.