Space Flight

DNA From Star Trek’s Original Doctor Will Ride to the Final Frontier

A memorial spaceflight paying tribute to the cast and crew of the original “Star Trek” TV show has just added another star to the passenger list.

DeForest Kelley — who played Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Starship Enterprise’s physician — will be represented by a thimble-sized sample of DNA on next year’s “Enterprise Flight.” Kelley passed away in 1999 at the age of 79, but the DNA was extracted from a hair sample that was preserved after his death.

DeForest Kelley at a 1988 Star Trek convention. (Photo by Alan C. Teeple / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Enterprise Flight, organized by Houston-based Celestis, will send capsules containing cremated remains and DNA from dozens of people into deep space late this year or early next year. Celestis’ payload is due to ride on the Centaur upper stage for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. (Yes, Spock fans … it’s a Vulcan.)

The prime directive for the Vulcan launch is to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the lunar surface for a NASA-supported mission, but after the Centaur has done its job, it will go into a “graveyard orbit” around the sun, along with the capsules packed aboard the spacecraft.

In addition to Kelley, the Star Trek personages represented on the flight include Nichelle Nichols (who played Lieutenant Uhura), James Doohan (who played Scotty, the starship’s chief engineer), Majel Barrett Roddenberry (Nurse Chapel), series creator Gene Roddenberry and visual-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Nichols’ ashes and DNA were added to Celestis’ manifest just a couple of weeks ago.

Charles Chafer, co-founder and CEO of Celestis, took note of the fact that today is celebrated as Star Trek Day. “It’s particularly notable that we announce DeForest Kelley’s addition to our Enterprise Flight on Star Trek Day,” he said in a news release. “No mission to deep space would be complete without a ship’s doctor.”

When Kelley died all those years ago, his wife Carolyn asked a family friend and caregiver named Kris M. Smith to cut off a couple of locks of the actor’s hair as keepsakes. Carolyn herself passed away in 2004, but Smith held onto the hair sample. This year, as news of the Enterprise Flight spread, Smith reached out via a mutual contact and offered to give the sample to Celestis for DNA extraction and inclusion on the flight.

“I donated the lock of hair so De could join his shipmates on their eternal journey into interstellar space. The mission just didn’t feel complete without Dr. McCoy aboard,” Smith said. “I think De would have loved to ‘go hopping galaxies’ again with his cast and crewmates. So, ‘second star to the right and straight on ’til morning,’ De! Loving you was easier than anything we will ever do again!”

Celestis has set up a website where Trek fans (and anyone else, for that matter) can submit their names to be included on the flight as tiny lines of text that are laser-etched onto an inch-wide nickel disc. Sending your name is free, but for a fee, you can add a personal message or photo.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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