March 16, 2015 12:00 PM

The starship Enterprise was meant to explore space in a five-year mission, but Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock – and actor Leonard Nimoy, who was 83 when he died Feb. 27 in Los Angeles from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – will be orbiting our lives for many, many years. It’s a blessing we share with all future Nimoys. “We will always be able to hear his voice in Star Trek episodes,” say his five grandchildren in a statement written exclusively for PEOPLE. “When we’re missing our Poppi (that’s what we all called him), we can go watch him online somewhere. That way he never really leaves us.”

In the half century since Star Trek launched its three-season run on NBC in 1966, the half Vulcan, half human with pointy ears, rather groovy bangs and a predisposition for precise logic has grown ever more iconic. He’s been called one of the greatest TV characters of all time and the best-loved alien since Superman. As the original series spawned movies, more TV shows and recent movie reboots starring Zachary Quinto as Spock, his significance became truly transcendent: On Feb. 28 astronaut Terry Virts paid tribute to Nimoy by sharing a photo of his hand offering the Vulcan salute (Nimoy’s invention), fingers spread in a V. “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy,” said President Barack Obama. His Star Trek costar William Shatner praised him as “a precious gem of a man.” Nimoy had already Tweeted out his own farewell: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

Nimoy was buried in a quiet ceremony – with Quinto speaking and modern Star Trek costar Chris Pine among the 300 mourners – two days after he died peacefully at his Bel Air home. Surrounded by his family, he had even smiled in his very final moment, according to Rabbi John L. Rosove, cousin to Nimoy’s widow, former actress Susan Bay, 71. “He had a very difficult last three, four months with the breathing,” says Rosove. “I think he saw light and he was beamed up, so to speak. Susan told him when he couldn’t respond, ‘Lenny, I love you. You can go. It’s okay. We love you.'”

Their 26-year marriage had been the bedrock of Nimoy’s happiness. He was open about how Susan helped him recover from alcoholism. “She brought him out of darkness,” says Rosove. “They would talk deeply about everything, so he had someone who adored him but always told him the truth.”

Over the years Nimoy learned to play along with his image as cerebral, poker-faced Spock. But that wasn’t the heart of the man. “Lenny was a pretty down-to-earth human being. And as a result, when he said something it resonated,” says Martin Landau, who costarred on Mission: Impossible, Nimoy’s first post-Trek series. “Lenny was a fair guy. You sensed when he talked to you that he wasn’t going to hurt you in any way. Ever.” Nimoy “was far from stoic,” adds Nicholas Meyer, a director and cowriter for several Trek movies. “He was passionate, he was humorous, he was an advocate for progressive ideals,” including civil rights. “He was not content to sit on the sidelines.”

Nimoy always had much more on his mind than Spock. He was a published poet, a photographer, a singer (his albums include Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space), a movie and TV director (including Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the hit 1987 comedy 3 Men and a Baby). Ambivalent about his famous role, he wrote one memoir, 1975’s I Am Not Spock, followed 20 years later by I Am Spock. But Nimoy said he knew that Spock had brought him “all kinds of wonderful opportunities.” And he respected the obsessive fans known as Trekkers: “They’re a lot of very decent, very wise and very worthwhile people.” Steve Guttenberg, one of the stars of 3 Men, recalls that “when people yelled, ‘Spock!’ he didn’t turn around like so many actors who would say, ‘That’s not my name.'” Instead, he would respond with Spock’s signature line, “Live long and prosper.”

“I loved him,” says Guttenberg. “He was a fireball inside a great amount of quiet.”

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