The late John Darby, MD, was the guy in the neighborhood who'd set up a telescope in his driveway and regale family and friends with information about the stars, planets, and galaxies.
Now, when his family looks up into the night sky, they may be able to catch a glimpse of him orbiting overhead.
Some of Darby's ashes were launched into low-earth orbit last week, in a memorial tribute to the aviation, aerospace, and astronomy enthusiast by his family.
"We love the fact you just kind of look up in the sky and go, 'Oh, wow, there he goes,'" his wife, Corinn Darby, told MedPage Today.
Darby, who was a physician at Maine Medical Center (MMC) in Portland and an Air Force veteran, died in 2018. Not long after, his daughter heard about a company called Celestis on a podcast. Since 1994, the company has been offering families the chance to send their loved ones' ashes into space.
"We knew instantly that was going to be perfect for him," Corinn said.
Early last Friday morning, Darby's ashes launched into low-earth polar orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California as part of a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. He was aboard with the cremated remains or DNA from just over 100 other people.
He and his fellow passengers will be in orbit for about 10 years, Corinn said.
Corinn met "Randy" -- that's how everyone knew him -- in her first year as a flight attendant with Delta, and in his first year in medical school at Tufts University, near Boston. She'd requested to be stationed in Boston, even though she was from Houston.
Aviation was a way of life for them, Corinn said. "We traveled extensively," she noted, often finding reasons to travel to far-flung places to earn continuing medical education credits.
Darby went to Tufts on an Air Force scholarship, so when he graduated in 1984, he and Corinn moved to Lubbock, Texas, where he served as chief of flight medicine at Reese Air Force Base. There, he had the opportunity to fly on T-38 supersonic jets, furthering his love of aviation and aerospace engineering that started in childhood.
Darby grew up in a neighborhood of Illinois popular with employees of Argonne National Laboratory, so playtime meant launching home-made rockets in his friends' backyards, Corinn said. His own father was a metallurgist who was involved with evaluation of nuclear research programs, she added, so science was always prominent in his life.
After his time in the Air Force, Darby went on to an anesthesiology residency at MMC, then to Harvard's Beth Israel Hospital in Boston for a pain medicine fellowship, before going back to MMC in 1993 as an attending physician.
He led the creation of MMC's Hannaford Center for Safety, Innovation, and Simulation, which brought the European practice of simulation into the hospital. He was fascinated by simulation, Corinn said, as it enabled practicing under various scenarios, such as if the power went out or a fire occurred in the operating room. He even became an advisor to an anesthesia simulation program in Kigali, Rwanda.
After learning about Celestis, Corinn and her daughters signed up. They received a small vial -- "about the size of a standard pill bottle you get at the pharmacy" -- and sent that back to the Houston-based company. "They sent us pictures of it going into the safe, getting transported, getting put in the payload, and the payload going on the rocket," she said.
Charles Chafer, a pioneer of the commercial space age, co-founded the company 3 decades ago. In the 1980s, Chafer worked for Space Services Inc. of America, the team that launched the first privately funded rocket into space, according to Celestis' website.
The company launched its first memorial space flight in 1997. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek," was on board, according to Colby Youngblood, president of Celestis.
Since then, the company has launched a total of 19 missions, and has four more scheduled, Youngblood said, including an upcoming launch this Friday.
"Access to space has picked up dramatically in the last 4 years," as private spaceflight companies become more established, he told MedPage Today.
While families may wait some time for their launch, missions are likely to become more frequent, Youngblood said. Celestis contracts with companies like SpaceX and Spaceflight Industries to carry their cargo as a secondary payload, which makes it more affordable than being a primary payload, he explained.
Celestis' typical customers are people with a background in aerospace, but they've come from all walks of life, including physicians and surgeons, he said.
In addition to Roddenberry, another star-studded customer was Eugene Shoemaker, the NASA scientist who co-discovered, with his wife, the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that ended up hitting Jupiter a few years after its discovery. Shoemaker was a part of the company's first lunar mission in 1998.
Celestis offers four services, Youngblood said. The earth-rise service starts at $3,000 and involves a suborbital mission in which the ashes return to earth via parachute and are returned to families as a keepsake noting they've traveled into space.
Next is the orbital service, in which the ashes are in orbit for 5 to 10 years, and can be tracked in real-time, "so you can see where, over the planet, your loved one is," Youngblood said. Then, when the payload burns up as it re-enters the atmosphere, "your loved one becomes a shooting star."
Celestis also offers a lunar service where the flight capsules land on the moon and remain there, followed by their Voyager service, which sends ashes into deep space. Both of those options start at around $13,000, Youngblood said.
The company anticipates a lunar and deep-space launch this summer, when its payload hitches a ride aboard the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket.
"Vulcan Centaur will do an orbit around the moon," Youngblood said. "When the stages separate, its peregrine lander will make its way to the lunar service, then Centaur will continue to go off into deep space. We'll have 63 capsules on the moon, and 196 capsules will go into deep space."
Some of Roddenberry's ashes will be aboard the Vulcan mission, along with his wife, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry's ashes, and DNA from their son. Many other "Star Trek" celebrities will also be on board, including Nichelle Nichols, whose ashes will be accompanied by her son Kyle's DNA; James Doohan, who played Scotty, accompanied by his daughter's DNA; and DeForest Kelley, who played the U.S.S. Enterprise's medical doctor, Leonard "Bones" McCoy, MD.
Corinn said Darby didn't watch a lot of "Star Trek" -- "he was probably reading about space exploration instead" -- but knows he would have appreciated the actors' love of space.
On the night of the launch, Corinn and her daughters were stationed at Lompoc Airport in California, which is due southeast of the Vandenberg base. They watched the SpaceX countdown on a big screen.
"We were just holding our breath down to the last second," Corinn said, noting the launch had been scratched the night before. "It was midnight, and we're far away from a major city, so the sky is clear. It's so dark, you can see all the stars, and when the rocket went up, it looked like the sun was rising."
"Everything just lit up," she said. "It was really incredible."