Comparison Shopping for the Best Burial in Space

The state of the universe.
Oct. 10 2013 12:37 PM

When I Leave This Earth

Comparison shopping for the best deals in space burial.

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Now that the era of private space flight is finally beginning to dawn, plenty of entrepreneurs are itching to sending you into orbit—Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic; Elon Musk of SpaceX; Bas Lansdorp of Mars One, and more.

Thomas Civeit wants to take you to space, too. The only catch is, you have to be dead. Civeit is the founder of Elysium Space, purveyor of what the company calls “dignified memorial spaceflight.” It’ll shoot your “cremains” (funeral directorspeak for “ashes”) up to join the communications satellites, spy satellites, and thousands of other artificial bits and pieces that circle the Earth. If all goes well, Civeit says, the first launch could come early next year, bearing the ashes of up to 100 of the dear departed.

Or part of them can, anyway. “Cremation leaves about six pounds of ashes,” says Civeit, a former NASA engineer who founded the company earlier this year. At a typical cost of $10,000 per pound to send a payload into space, that would be prohibitively expensive for most funeral shoppers, so, he says, “we’ll send up a symbolic portion, maybe a gram.” That’ll cost you $1,990 (plus tax and shipping, as the company makes clear when you click the “add to cart” button on the Elysium website). “It’s 60 percent cheaper than the existing space-burial options,” he says.

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It might come as a surprise that space burial is already a thing, but a company called Celestis (“Making Your Loved One Part of Space History”) has been providing the service since 1997, when pinches of 1960s icon Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and several others went into orbit. Elysium Space is a pioneer, it turns out, only in terms of cost.

“It’s been our experience that people periodically want to get into this business,” says Celestis co-founder Charles Chafer. “But it’s a big challenge to merge funeral and aerospace, which are two very conservative industries. So far,” he says, “we’re the only ones who have been able to do it successfully.” He thinks it’s only a matter of time, though, before someone else makes it work. “If we’re correct about the global market, it’s potentially as big as the market for having your ashes scattered at sea.” Which, when you think about it, is not all that different, although it sounds a lot less nutty. “Studies show that between 1 and 6 percent of people who elect cremation would consider space burial,” Chafer says.

If you really want to save money on sending your loved one’s ashes into space, Celestis has an option that’s even less expensive than what Elysium offers. For just $995, you can send bits of Uncle Ralph on a suborbital flight like the one Alan Shepard, the first American in space, took in 1961. The ashes go up, spend two minutes and 40 seconds in outer space, then come down again, to be sent back to the bereaved.

If you want the full orbital experience from Celestis, the price goes up to nearly $5,000. And for $12,500 you can go all the way to the moon, or even leave the Earth-moon system entirely. Gene Roddenberry will be doing that, too, says Chafer. His widow, Majel Roddenberry, let Celestis send her husband on the 1997 flight as long as the company promised to put both of them on the first interplanetary mission. (You pay a 50 percent premium on any of Celestis’ flights to mingle two sets of ashes together.)

But if you want achieve postmortem orbit at the lowest possible cost, Elysium appears to be the way to go. The company plans to launch its clients’ cremains on a CubeSat, a standardized 4-by-4-by-4-inch box designed to put student projects into space as “secondary payloads,” tagging along with bigger, more sophisticated experiments or commercial satellites without taking up too much extra room. (Celestis clients also go as secondary payloads in most cases).

Civeit expects to pack 100 or so customers into each CubeSat, which is one way he’ll save money. Another is by going up aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. “They currently have the cheapest flights,” he says.

While the cremains will achieve true Earth orbit, they won’t stay up long. Roddenberry and Leary were in space for five years before they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Elysium clients will go into a relatively low orbit and come down after a year or so. “In a last poetic moment,” says the company website, “the spacecraft will harmlessly reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, blazing as a shooting star.” “It gives you closure,” says Civeit.

You won’t be able to see the satellite while it’s in space, though. “It’s much too small,” Civeit admits. But Elysium is creating a mobile app so you can track where it is at any time. It’s kind of like visiting a cemetery via webcam, except the gravestone isn’t visible in the first place, and it will be gone before long.

On a more positive note, says Civeit, “We consider ourselves as part of new space movement. We’re helping lead the way toward democratization of access to space.” Given that it costs $20 million to get into space if you’re alive, however—a figure that will drop to a still-exorbitant $250,000 if Virgin Galactic’s spaceship ever gets off the ground—dying is probably the only way most of us will ever be able to go into orbit.

Michael D. Lemonick, a former writer for Time, is a senior writer at Climate Central, Inc. His fifth book is Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin.

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