Mission accomplished: 2 years after his death, Chicago man achieves dream of space travel
“Star Trek” fan Samuel W. “Sam” Davis dreamed of one day beaming up into space.
Now, two years after his death, Davis, a Federal Aviation Administration safety technician who grew up a science fiction-loving kid in Cabrini-Green, achieved his goal June 25.
At least, a little bit of him did. About one gram of the Wicker Park resident’s ashes were launched into the heavens by Celestis Memorial Spaceflights, a Houston company that sends cremains into space.
His cremains and those of six others from Illinois — three of them from Chicago — are expected to orbit the earth for seven to 25 years. Then, the satellite they’re on — which can be tracked via satellite — is expected to fall back into the atmosphere, burning up on re-entry.
“He would have been like a kid in a candy store,” says Davis’ daughter Yolanda Davis-Ingram, who traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the launch last month. “He would have been so excited.”
Celestis has launched 16 “flights” since 1997, naming each one. In addition to the remains of Davis — who died of colon cancer in 2017 at 71 — the company says its “Heritage Flight” carries the ashes or DNA of more than 150 people.
It’s sent up more than 1,300 of what it calls participants — mostly in the form of cremains, along with some DNA samples. Among them: “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, the TV series’ James “Mr. Scott” Doohan, science-fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke, original-seven astronaut Gordon Cooper, Skylab astronaut William R. Pogue, LSD guru Timothy Leary and Eugene Shoemaker, co-discoverer of the Levy-Shoemaker 9 comet.
Celestis was the first company to fly cremated remains into space, with the 1997 launch that included Roddenberry. It’s also the only aerospace company to complete more than one such launch, according to co-founder Charles M. Chafer.
He says other Celestis customers have included pilots, skydivers, NASA employees, military veterans, scientists and extreme-sports buffs.
Its prices start at $2,495 — that’s for a mission that quickly returns to earth, usually seven to 10 minutes after takeoff. The most expensive, which start at $12,500, are slated to go to the moon’s surface or into deep space.
“We’ve always wanted to keep our pricing at or below the cost of a funeral,” Chafer says.
It’s possible to fly a complete set of cremains into space. But the company suggests sending only a symbolic amount and keeping the rest for sentiment — and as a backup. “Rockets occasionally fail, and we offer a free re-flight,” Chafer says, noting that two flights didn’t make it into orbit.
The ashes go in individual aluminum capsules of one gram, two grams or seven grams, then are glued together, placed in a container inside a satellite and attached to a rocket or other launch vehicle.
The satellites are a “secondary payload on commercial and scientific spacecraft,” some “about the size of a college-dorm refrigerator,” according to Chafer.
The future Voyager mission is to be the third flight for Roddenberry remains, Chafer says, counting the first launch and having some of his ashes taken aboard a space shuttle flight. The “Star Trek” creator’s cremains are set to go up with those of his wife, actress Majel Roddenberry, who appeared on the original TV series and some of its spinoffs and movies.
Shoemaker is the only man Celestis helped put on the moon. “NASA asked us to honor him,” Chafer says.
The company helped prepare a tiny portion of Shoemaker’s ashes for launch on NASA’s Lunar Prospector mission, which mapped the moon before “impacting” on its surface in 1999.
Depending on weather and other factors, Celestis launches take place from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Marshall Islands, Spain and New Mexico.
Ahead of the launches, Celestis hosts get-togethers for families and friends of the deceased, with add-ons for which they pay extra, like Kennedy Space Center tours.
Davis-Ingram says she found that “all our loved ones were like-minded people” — fans of space travel, sci-fi and a dream of a utopian future.
Her father was a fan of the “Star Trek” spinoff “Deep Space Nine” and wanted to follow Roddenberry into space. Davis-Ingram says her dad “was a very big fan of his. He even had me write a paper on him when I was in high school.”
Mr. Davis was cremated by the Cremation Society of Illinois, according to funeral director Brooke Benjamin, who watched a replay of the middle-of-the-night launch.
“It was so beautiful, so moving,” Benjamin says.
Davis-Ingram says: “When the rocket took off, the sky lit up like it was morning. It was very loud, a bit exciting. Everybody was just screaming.”