Derek Stephen Yanes grew up in Tampa during the space shuttle era. His childhood was spent watching rocket launches at Cape Canaveral and constructing model rockets with his dad.
When he became an uncle, he passed on his love of the extraterrestrial, spending hours watching the NASA channel with his nieces and nephew. A medical condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia prevented him from pursuing a career in space.
In 2019, Yanes passed away unexpectedly at the age of 46 from complications due to his condition. His sister, Mellissa Teston, wanted to host a space-themed celebration of life. As she searched for Star Wars funerals and other otherworldly themes online, she came across memorial spaceflights.
This was it, a way to make his dream come true. Yanes’s ashes will go to space at 2:25 p.m. today aboard a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight.
“This is a fitting tribute to honor his love and passion,” Teston said.
Celestis has been launching commercial memorial spaceflights since 1997, said co-founder and CEO Charles Chafer. You can choose to send a DNA sample or a sample of cremated remains on a rocket that returns to Earth, lands on the moon, or even launches into deep space.
“You’ll never see as much cheering or high-fiving at a funeral,” he said.
The pandemic led the family to wait several years. Finally, Teston booked her brother a spot on the Ascension Flight, where he and 46 other “participants” will launch into a low Earth orbit on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which carries the Transporter-5 mission.
“The mission is as important as the liftoff,” Teston said. “He watched every liftoff that he could, but after everyone who was excited about the liftoff was done, he was the one who would stay behind and watch the NASA channel to listen to the communication.”
The mission includes a satellite where Yanes will remain for close to a decade. Then the orbit of the satellite will degrade to the point where it enters the earth’s atmosphere and burns up, Chafer said.
“It’s sort of an ashes to ashes experience for our participants,” he said.
Teston, her husband and her three adult children, who were close to Yanes, will attend the launch at Cape Canaveral. They arrived at Kennedy Space Center Monday to meet with other families whose loved ones will be on the memorial flight. On Tuesday, they toured the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and experienced a memorial service and dinner, with astronaut Don Thomas as the guest speaker.
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“I could just hear [Yanes] in my ear going ‘Mel, this is so cool,’” she said.
Family and friends crowdsourced for the roughly $6,000 service via GoFundMe. They will be able to live-stream the launch from home.
Teston hopes that this will also bring attention to congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a genetic disorder that affects the adrenal glands.
“On the surface he looked strong,” she said. “But inside there were a lot of things that happened to his body, especially as he grew older.”
Yanes could never join the military, which would have been his path to a space career. His niece Brianna, 25, was inspired to join the Navy in hopes of eventually working for SpaceX or NASA.
Back on Earth, Yanes’ family will be able to track his coordinates as he soars far above them.
“I don’t even know the emotions we are going to experience,” Teston said. “I’m trying to ground myself knowing my brother is going to be part of a mission that will leave a legacy behind.”