It is no secret that companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin offer promises of commercial space flight that will open the vastness of Space to the masses or at the very least the “One Percent”.
While the Cosmos have been littered with space debris for decades, is it soon to become the “final frontier” for the remains of more than Tim Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry? While traditional burial costs skyrocket maybe the answer is quiet literally to be found in a rocket.
“It’s a challenge marrying two of the most conservative industries on the planet,” says Charles Chafer who runs space burial firm Celestis. “Aerospace and funeral.”
If the idea of blasting a loved one’s remains into space seems a bit creepy, don’t lose sight of the metaphor that has been carried down through the ages. Throughout history we “send off” our dead through prayer, a corpse-filled burning boat pushed out to sea and now Space.
Getting a loved one’s remains ready for an on time departure is not all that mystical and considering our planet has finite space for the living perhaps this is not such an out of this world idea…
With space burial services, like Celestis or Elysium already on the open market the process is quite simple. Payment is processed from the departed family; the ashes are rather traditional according to Celestis’s Chafer. They’re ashes. But the capsules are special and must pass strict thermal, vibration and vacuum tests so they won’t explode. In reality the canister itself is technically a UFO.
The space urn then needs to find a ride. Burial services are bid out to companies that operate larger crafts destined for Earth’s orbit. Astrobotic Technology’s CEO John Thornton says someday his company will be “the UPS of getting to the moon.”
When Timothy Leary was nearing the end of his life he saw a video presenting the idea of being buried in space and Chafer says the godfather of LSD stood, pointed and said something close to, “That’s me. I’m going to join the light.” And he did. In April of 1997 on Spain’s Canary Islands Leary’s remains, Roddenberry’s and 22 others’ drew worldwide headlines as they boarded Celestis’s first private memorial spaceflight and fired off into the sky.
As the New York Times noted at the time:
The official purpose of the rocket, launched from a Lockheed L-1011 airplane, was to put Spain’s first satellite into space. But attached to the rocket’s third-stage motor was a canister containing the ashes of the 24 people in aluminum capsules, each one engraved with the person’s name and a commemorative phrase.
”They look like little cocaine vials, which is kind of hysterical in Timothy’s case,” [Leary’s friend Carol] Rosin said.
Their ashes would fly 350 miles above the earth, completing 15 revolutions each day, before burning up in the atmosphere five years later in May of 2002.
Ashes To More Ashes ?
In 1994 NASA confirmed that Gene Roddenberry had actually been buried in space prior to his flight with Celestis. A NASA astronaut had quietly smuggled his ashes aboard an unnamed space shuttle flight as a “personal affect”. At the time the NASA spokesperson believed such a move was a first, but who knows what other astronauts had up their sleeves.
To date official space burials haven’t involved full corpses. Volume is a commodity on a spaceflight. So funeral services send up a “symbolic amount” of the deceased.
Cosmic Costs (Screenshot of Celestis pricing above, Elysium below)