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June 19, 2024

Fiery End for Private Moon Lander Carrying Ashes of Star Trek Icons

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Jan 21, 2024

The private Peregrine lunar lander, which was carrying symbolic amounts of cremated remains from Star Trek icons James Doohan and Gordon Cooper as part of its payload, met a fiery end Friday morning as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere after missing a maneuver that left it on course to swing past the moon.

High Hopes Dashed After Fuel Leak Scuttles Moon Landing Attempt

The Peregrine lander, built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology Inc. with funding from NASA, launched Sunday aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket after years of development. It was intended to be the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, carrying scientific instruments and technology demonstrations as well as small amounts of cremated remains from Doohan, Cooper and others.

But Monday, just two days after launch, the spacecraft sprang a fuel leak, scuttling its chances for a soft lunar landing. Ground controllers managed to stabilize Peregrine in a temporary orbit, but with insufficient fuel to reach the moon, the lander was ultimately placed on course for atmospheric reentry and a fiery end high over the South Pacific on Friday.

“This is not the fate we wished for Peregrine,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton in a statement earlier this week. “However, we are proud that we pushed the boundaries of what a small private company can do in deep space.”

The mission was already making history before its premature demise:

  • It represented the first attempt by a private company, rather than a government space agency, to land a spacecraft intact on the moon
  • It was carrying the cremated remains of several high-profile space enthusiasts and pop culture figures as a symbolic “burial in space”

“While unfortunate that their symbolic ‘burial at sea’ will end up being cremation by atmosphere, the legacy of these individuals will live on,” wrote NBC space reporter Aditi Rajagopal.

Ashes of “Scotty” and Gordon Cooper Aboard Ill-Fated Spacecraft

Among the ashes aboard Peregrine were those of James “Scotty” Doohan, an actor best known for playing chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on the original Star Trek TV series, and Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Mercury astronaut and the first American to spend an entire day in space.

Both Doohan and Cooper had their ashes flown to space after their deaths in 2005 and 2004, respectively. But only small symbolic amounts were aboard Peregrine on their doomed journey to the moon.

Other ceremonial payloads reportedly included the ashes of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, known for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ashes Aboard Peregrine
James “Scotty” Doohan
Gordon “Gordo” Cooper
Arthur C. Clarke

“It’s unfortunate that the symbolic lunar burial will not occur, but the legacy of these space legends will live on,” said former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.

The families of those whose ashes were aboard have not yet commented. The remains will be completely destroyed and scattered during atmospheric reentry.

Temporary Orbit Bought Time, But Couldn’t Save Ambitious Moon Shot

After detecting a “major fuel leak” shortly after reaching a high Earth orbit, ground controllers managed to stabilize Peregrine and place it in a temporary holding orbit.

Over the next few days, the Astrobotic team assessed options to salvage the mission. But with insufficient fuel, the plucky spacecraft simply didn’t have enough propellant to enter a lunar trajectory or execute a soft landing.

“The leak occurred shortly after our translunar injection burn, which made saving the spacecraft very difficult,” explained Astrobotic’s Thornton. “We maximized what options were available given the circumstances, but in the end, physics intervened.”

Timeline of Astrobotic’s Ambitious but Star-Crossed Peregrine Mission
July 2024: Peregrine launches aboard ULA Vulcan rocket
Jan 15, 2024: Reaches temporary Earth orbit after fuel leak
Jan 18, 2024: With insufficient fuel, reentry over Pacific Ocean confirmed

Thornton remained upbeat about the future of private lunar exploration missions.

“While NASA has successfully landed government spacecraft on the moon in the past, we were attempting to land a private spacecraft, which no company has done before,” he told reporters. “We took a big swing here, and this time we did not succeed. But we will learn from this experience.”

Fiery Reentry Occurs Friday Morning Over South Pacific

With no viable options left to salvage its moon mission, Peregrine was intentionally directed into an atmospheric reentry interface over the South Pacific early Friday. NASA predicted most of the spacecraft would break up and burn in the upper atmosphere beginning around 4:40 a.m. Eastern time Friday.

“No harmful debris is expected to reach the ocean or land surfaces,” NASA said in a statement about the reentry profile.

The agency did say, however, that small pieces of the spacecraft could have survived reentry. Astrobotic’s flight operations team remained in contact with Peregrine until final signal loss during the reentry process.

What’s Next for Private Moon Landers After Peregrine’s Demise?

While Peregrine won’t achieve the milestone of the first private soft lunar landing, its accident has blazed a trail for other companies attempting the same feat.

Astrobotic was one of three companies selected by NASA last year to deliver science and technology payloads to the moon under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The other contractors – Houston’s Intuitive Machines and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California – are still targeting moon landings in the next couple years.

Astrobotic itself has more lunar lander missions on the books. Even as the loss of Peregrine was unfolding earlier this week, NASA announced a $187.5 million contract award to Astrobotic to fly as many as five more CLPS missions over the next decade.

The company’s next lander, named Griffin for former NASA chief Mike Griffin, is slated to launch in 2025 carrying instruments to search for water ice and other scientific objectives.

Upcoming Private Moon Missions
Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander – Late 2024
Masten Mission One lander – 2025
Astrobotic Griffin lander – 2025

“Astrobotic maintains our goal of being the company with the most successful flights to the moon this decade,” said Thornton.

While small compared to government efforts of the 1960s and 70s, this new generation of private moon landers are laying the groundwork for expanded lunar exploration – and even possible mining, tourism and lunar settlement operations in the future.

Legacy of Space Icons’ Ashes Will Live On Despite Failed Moon Trip

For supporters of space exploration, the symbolism of legends like “Scotty” and “Gordo” traveling to the moon, even in ash form, was significant.

“They pioneered so much of the early Space Age, even fictionally in the case of James Doohan as Scotty. So while the ashes won’t make it, their adventurous spirit lives on to inspire future generations,” wrote NBC’s Rajagopal.

Perhaps there could still be a “burial in space” for the three space legends after their Peregrine misadventure fizzles out.

Celestis Inc., a private company that has flown symbolic cremated remains into orbit before, has offered to launch a small capsule with the ashes aboard a future rocket flight. While they wouldn’t reach the lunar surface, it would provide a fitting tribute to the Star Trek actor and astronauts whose daring exploits paved the way.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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