One of the first Americans to orbit the Earth will make a final voyage into space when his ashes are rocketed into the cosmos, the company providing the space funeral said Monday.
The ashes of Gordon Cooper, who was part of NASA's Project Mercury that sent the first Americans into space, will join those of "Star Trek" actor James Doohan on a Falcon One rocket launched from California in a yet to be determined date, said Susan Schonfeld of Space Services.
"Gordon always would have taken another space flight had he the opportunity," his widow, Suzan Cooper, told AFP. "This was the next best thing. He certainly wouldn't have said 'No'."
"Gordon firmly believed that after you die you can still observe what was most important to you in life," said Cooper, who was married to him for 32 years. "I have a feeling he will be very much aware of what's going on."
Cooper died in his home in Ventura, California, in October 2004 at the age of 77.
The launch date for the "Explorers Flight" hinged on the success of the maiden flight of a Falcon One rocket slated for February 8 in the Marshall Islands.
Cooper was one of seven men chosen to become the first Americans in space, although the US space program was beaten to the punch by the Russians, who sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961.
Alan Shepard was the first American in space on May 5, 1961.
Cooper was the last of the seven Mercury crew members to reach space, but his Faith 7 mission was the longest as he completed 22 orbits in a trip that lasted more than 34 hours to evaluate the effects of spending one day in space.
Two years later, Cooper commanded the Gemini Five mission, on which he and Charles Conrad orbited Earth for eight days, setting an endurance record.
The mission served as proof that astronauts could survive trips to the moon and back. Cooper logged slightly more than 225 hours in space by the time he retired from NASA and the Air Force as a colonel in 1970.
Actor Dennis Quaid played Cooper in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff" about Project Mercury.
Tributary messages left at the Internet website http://www.spacehero.net will be digitized and sent into orbit with Cooper's ashes.
"Love ya man! The Merc Seven are the greatest heroes of all time," a message from Chip Blackburn of the state of Tennessee read on Monday.
"The stars are brighter because of you and the original seven and all that you risked for the exploration of space."
Messages from fans will also accompany the remains of Doohan, who died in July of last year at the age of 85.
The Canadian-born actor played "Star Trek" engineer Scotty, who worked miracles on the Enterprise, a fictional starship used to explore "space, the final frontier" in television shows and films that won a devoted cult of fans.
The memorial flight was postponed last year to allow US Defense Department engineers to sort out engine problems with the Falcon One rocket, according to Charles Chafer of Space Services Inc.
The rocket is to deliver a satellite into orbit. Space Services arranged for the ashes of Cooper, Doohan and others to be packed into a rocket stage that will be jettisoned, then go into a decaying orbit around the Earth.
The stage will incinerate on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
The Explorers Flight was billed by Space Services as the largest ever memorial spaceflight, with 168 participants from eight countries aboard.
Space Services, a Texas-based company, has rocketed the remains of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry and 1960s drug guru Timothy Leary into the firmament.