Holly Larocque peers into a telescope, watching a patch of milky night sky over her Ottawa backyard. Her husband, Paul Baker, has used his iPhone compass to point the telescope exactly 8 degrees north. He stands beside her, softly reciting the countdown: “10, 9, 8 …”
At 10:49 and 25 seconds, Holly’s father, Wallace Larocque – or, rather, a symbolic teaspoon of him – will pass overhead in a rocket more than 700 kilometres above the world. Truth is, they aren’t likely to see anything: In addition to a powerful telescope, they’d need the clearest sky, precise timing, the Earth and sun aligned just so.
But they can’t stop looking; how long, after all, have humans searched the stars for hope and meaning? And it’s not everyone who has a piece of her dad up there, making earthly rounds every 80 minutes.
“Somehow you are struck by the thought that we are so infinitesimal in the universe, and yet so significant,” Ms. Larocque says. “Every last dream matters.”
In 1997, Ms. Larocque’s father – Rocky, as he was called – revealed a dream to his youngest daughter with a news clipping about the remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry being rocketed in deep space. “When I croak,” he told her in confidence, “that’s what I want.” Her dad was a no-fuss funny man, the life of the party who hated to be feted himself. “My father never asked for anything,” Holly jokes now. “Just this one little thing: Shoot him into outer space when he was dead. It was the one place, he liked to say, that he had never flown.”
She kept his request secret until his death in 2010, at the age of 89. And then she tracked down Space Services, Inc., a Texas-based aerospace company that launched its first space burial in 1997, with Mr. Roddenberry’s no-return journey. There’s also the lunar impactor, in which the remains of a loved one can be smashed into the moon, or the basic $1,000 Earth ride (up and back down again). Ms. Larocque opted for the Earth orbital for $3,000. She liked the idea of her father watching over her a little while longer. (Altogether, the remains of 1,000 people have passed into the final frontier, one way or the other.)
The ashes of Rocky Larocque are now nestled in the Celestis 11, a capsule piggybacked on a rocket called the Falcon, which will circle the globe for about a year, and then burn up when it plummets through the atmosphere. Her father will become a shooting star.
“It’s magical,” she says, and her dad would have loved the whimsy of it, as much as the science. He taught her, she says, to live with imagination, spontaneously declaring national holidays from school, and fostering the artistic inclinations of his two daughters, though he had no time for the theatre himself. Ms. Larocque is a singer and actress, the former star of the children’s show Under the Umbrella Tree.
The sky was his dreaming place; he joined up early to be an air force pilot in Britain during the Second World War, and then worked at Transport Canada, where he designed flight simulators. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, Mr. Larocque made sure his daughters watched; the next year, Ms. Larocque recalls the hush that fell over the house, when Apollo 13 was feared lost. Her father, she always knew, had an astronaut’s soul. Whenever she went to him in tears over some mishap, he would recite the air force motto: Per ardua ad astra. “Through adversity to the stars.”
Ms. Larocque had the phrase placed with his urn on the Celestis 11, which launched near dawn on May 22, with Holly and Paul watching from an observation deck at Florida’s Jetty Park. The Celestis was the second payload, in space terms – the real reason for the trip was to send the unmanned Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, the first commercial trip of its kind. Basically, the Falcon rocket gave the boost into space, and Holly’s dad and the remains of 319 people from 18 countries tagged along, stored in a collection of silver lipstick-shaped urns. James Doohan, famous for playing Scotty on Star Trek, travelled with him.
Ten kilometres away from the launch pad, family members recited the countdown like a prayer. They held hands. When the engines fired up, “You could feel the vibration right here,” says Ms. Larocque, rat-tat-tatting her hand over her heart.
At home now, Ms. Larocque often catches up with her dad, tracking the orbit of the Celestis on her laptop; when friends call, they ask where he is. “He’s over Mexico,” she tells them. “He’s passing by Hawaii.” Each time she pinpoints his location, she says, it reminds her what matters in life. “I keep wanting to phone him, and say, ‘Look what you’re doing now.”
In the backyard, on this night, the sky is still, but for a lone firefly weaving over the trees. “We know he’s up there,” says Ms. Larocque, and that’s enough. As star-watchers know, the search is the journey.