SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — A rocket packed with everything from wedding rings and science experiments to the cremated remains of the dearly departed launched to the edge of space and returned safely May 20.

The unmanned UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket roared off its launch pad with a hodgepodge of payloads from Spaceport America, the country’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport under construction near the city of Truth or Consequences, N.M.

The suborbital SL-5 mission was a partnership between UP Aerospace and Spaceport America. The New Mexico Space Grant Consortium sponsored the flight to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs for students from New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

The May 20 rocket launch, as well as the yearlong campaign that enabled students to build the experiments that flew, were sponsored by NASA through the Summer of Innovation program.

“It was a perfect flight … an outstanding day,” said Jerry Larson, president of Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based UP Aerospace — the company that designed and operates the 6-meter  rocket.

Altogether, the launch took about 15 minutes from liftoff to landing. Packed in the rocket’s payload section were nearly 30 student experiments carried to the edge of space in canisters that then returned back to Earth via parachute.

“We actually set a record here at Spaceport America … 73 1/2 miles. This is our highest flight that we’ve had to date,” Larson said in an interview. “It was picture perfect … everything functioned just beautifully.”

The investigations included: a look into magnetic levitation, a sensor to measure radiation levels at high altitude, the measurement of sound propagation through a vacuum, and a project to determine if temperature in space has an effect on electrical components.

Other student experiments included learning what happens to marshmallows traveling on a rocket, gauging the pH level of yeast grown in microgravity, and finding out if AC current can heat up or roast a New Mexico green chili. Three high school experiments and one community college experiment were supported by New Mexico Gross Receipts Tax revenue, dedicated to supporting spaceport-related education.

“These missions create enthusiasm and interest in science and technology,” said Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. The experiments give students and teachers an educational opportunity that cannot be found anywhere else, she said, and inspire students to engage in aerospace and space research.


Memorial spaceflight

Also riding aboard the SpaceLoft XL were capsules containing cremated human remains flown under an arrangement with Celestis Inc., the Houston-based memorial spaceflight firm that has been launching cremains into space since 1997.

“We had flight capsules from 20 Memorial Spaceflight participants and digital ‘star information’ from more than 45,000 Name A Star Live customers aboard SL5,” said Celestis Chief Executive Officer Charles Chafer. “All were successfully returned to us by UP Aerospace, marking the 10th Celestis mission to space.”

The recovered Celestis capsules and modules are being returned to family members and loved ones, providing them with a flown keepsake.

According to Celestis, among the remains of those flown into space were ashes of Leonard Majeske, a NASA aerospace engineer who worked for legendry rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun.

Also onboard were remains of Brenda Jean Sartor, a mechanical engineer who suffered from muscular dystrophy. Her physical limitations kept her from becoming an astronaut. But as a dying wish, she wanted to send part of her cremated remains into space, according to a Celestis statement.

Celestis worked with the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and provided matching funds that assisted students to launch their experiments into space.

A 30-year veteran of private sector space business development, Chafer said he is ready for “overnight success” status.

“It seems a lot closer than it ever has,” Chafer said. “This is true commercial operations. You really see that in the efficiency. It’s very impressive, with UP Aerospace, Spaceport America … the cooperation between them all and White Sands Missile Range. It’s the way things are supposed to work.”

Chafer said that his company’s next flight of cremated remains will be on an Earth orbit mission, now projected to occur no earlier than July 15.


Heavenly wedding rings

Also on hand for the May 20 launch, with fingers crossed, was Chuck Lauer, the former Rocketplane Global executive who is now business development director for a new entrepreneurial effort called SpaceWed, which aims to offer wedding rings flown in space.

“What we’ve got is the first-ever commercial space wedding rings payload into space,” Lauer said. The booster took to space one matched set of rings, along with about 70 grams of pure gold.

“This is the start of a commercial project named,” Lauer said, adding that couples will be able to use a website ordering process to pick from rings crafted by boutique jewelry |designers.

Each set of space wedding rings will be assigned a unique serial number and engraved with the SpaceWed logo. The rings will be sold in custom-designed, space-themed packaging and will include a certificate of spaceflight as well as a DVD and photo album of the rocket launch.

“Government astronauts have for many years had a private tradition of flying their rings or their spouses’ rings with them on their spaceflights,” Lauer said. “While it will still be a few more years before private citizens can do this on commercial suborbital spaceflights, our Space Wedding Rings Initiative will give 50 couples planning their weddings right now the opportunity to have the symbols of their marriage fly to space this year and connecting their own wedding vows with the beauty of the Earth as seen from space.”

Prior to the launch, couples will select their favorite set of rings from a catalog. The rings will then be custom sized, ensuring a perfect fit upon their return to Earth.

The cosmic wedding rings will then be flown on future UP Aerospace vehicles or suborbital rockets taking off from Spaceport Sweden, Lauer said.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...