How Space Burials Work: Process, Cost & How to Plan

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The classic sci-fi show Star Trek proclaimed that space was the final frontier. Now, it can be your final frontier, thanks to the rising popularity of space burials.

There’s something about outer space that makes it seem like the perfect place to lay someone to rest. Space is vast, deep, dark, and fathomless. It’s boundless and endless. Those who are left behind may take comfort in the fact that the impact of their loved ones will be equally as infinite. 

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More than 450 people have had a portion of their ashes shot into orbit since 1992. The first, fittingly enough, was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. A sample of Roddenberry’s remains traveled into space on the NASA space shuttle Columbia mission and returned. 

Space burials aren’t only for science fiction icons and wealthy celebrities. Thanks to an increasing private sector interest in space travel, the prospect of space burial has become more accessible.

What’s a Space Burial? 

A space burial is, simply put, the practice of launching cremated remains into space. Companies in the business of putting ashes in space often refer to space burials as “memorial spaceflights.” More accurately, the ashes are sent into orbit for a brief amount of time before returning to Earth.

You might wonder why remains aren’t scattered in space. It’s because loose ashes in space would become space debris. Space debris (also known as space waste or space garbage) refers to manmade detritus in space. This includes objects like defunct satellites and spent rocket stages. 

It’s estimated that as of this year there are as many as 129 million bits of debris smaller than 10 centimeters in orbit around the Earth at any time.

Solar panels, telescopes, and star trackers are particularly vulnerable to being damaged by small space debris. It’s important, to minimize the impact of ashes in space as much as possible. 

History of Space Burials and Famous Burials

Gene Roddenberry has had two separate space burials. After the NASA mission that carried his ashes in space, some of his remains traveled up in April of 1997 during the first-ever private space burial. Celestis, a private space company, launched a Pegasus rocket that carried samples of the remains of 24 people into space. 

It orbited the Earth for five years until it burned up in the atmosphere. Roddenberry wasn’t the only notable person whose remains were aboard this rocket. Ashes from space physicist Gerard O’Neill, rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke, and counterculture icon Timothy Leary were all aboard the same flight. 

Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty in the original Star Trek series, also had his ashes sent into space. In fact, portions of his ashes journeyed into space on three separate flights. 

But soon, the late Roddenberry will tie this record. Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett (who played Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series) made arrangements before her death to have her ashes launched into space together with her husband’s. Celestis has scheduled that launch for 2020.  

Nearly every portion of ashes that has been shot into space has returned to Earth eventually for reasons we’ll outline later. But there is one space burial that was more permanent. Dr. Gene Shoemaker was one of the founders of the entire field of planetary science. His research on craters was crucial to our understanding of lunar geology. 

He also co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Shoemaker passed away in 1997 in a car accident. In 1999, the Lunar Prospector sent his ashes in space in a capsule designed by planetary scientist Carolyn Porco.

A portion of Shoemaker’s ashes were interred on the moon. He is the only person whose ashes have been buried on a celestial body beyond the planet Earth. 

Shoemaker may not be alone for long, though. Another private space company, Elysium Space, has joined the aforementioned Celestis in offering permanent lunar burials. Both companies are offering launches as early as 2021.    

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

How Much Does a Space Burial Cost?

You might think that the price of a space burial would be too astronomically high (no pun intended) for your budget. But there are actually a wide variety of pricing options available.

 In addition to their Lunar Memorial, which is priced at $9,950, Elysium Space offers a more affordable Shooting Star Memorial for $2,490. Considering the average casket costs between $2,000 and $5,000, this is a fairly reasonable price point.

Celestis has been established for longer than Elysium: as such, it offers a few more options. Its Earth Rise Service is similar in scope to Elysium Space’s Shooting Star Memorial and has a similar price point at $2,495. Its Luna Service, on the other hand, is more expensive than Elysium’s, at $12,500. 

Celestis also offers a mid-range Earth Orbit Service starting at $4,995 and a deluxe Voyager Service starting at $12,500. Both companies also offer discounted services to veterans. 

These prices all encompass a very small amount of ash — one gram, to be exact. That number may be upped to seven grams with an accompanying rise in price.

The cremated remains of a human weigh between four and eight pounds. At an estimated cost of $10,000 per pound, this amount would be too expensive for most people to transport. 

The smaller, encapsulated amount of ashes is much more affordable. Again, a space burial is more of a symbolic gesture than a permanent resting place.  

The Space Burial Process 

There are several different options on ways to send ashes in space but many steps in the process are universal.   

Step 1: Contact a company that does private space burials

A private space burial company will handle all the logistical issues. This includes helping you complete any necessary paperwork and coordinating with commercial spacecraft companies like SpaceX and Lockheed Martin. 

Space missions aren’t very frequent — expect to wait. Be sure to book as soon as you can, because spaces on flights are limited. 

Step 2: Encapsulate the ashes

The company you choose will provide you with a tube that is approximately the size of a lipstick — you’ll put ashes of your loved one in it. The company can engrave initials or even a message onto this tube. 

The company will reclaim the capsule if you opt for one of the lower-cost options that return the ashes to earth. They’ll verify that it reached space before returning it to you to keep. 

Step 3: Attend or view the launch

Friends and family of a loved one whose ashes are being sent to space are typically invited to a pre-launch tour the day before liftoff. This way, they can gain a better understanding of how the rocket works. 

On launch day, all the people who have loved ones on board can celebrate together in a joint memorial service. Attendees will share favorite memories and commemorate the lives of their late friends and family members. 

You can also watch a live webcast if you’re unable to attend the launch so you can view and participate from afar. 

Step 4: Track your loved ones

Tracking is sometimes available so you know where in the universe your loved one is, particularly for people whose loved ones’ ashes will be in space for an extended period of time.

A transmitter sends a precise location, so you can still feel connected — even when you’re a universe away.

Step 4: Treasure your keepsakes

The company you choose will provide things like a Certificate of Mission Completion and a custom video of the pre-launch memorial service, in addition to returning any encapsulated remains that return to Earth. 

How to Plan a Space Burial for Yourself or a Loved One

The best (and really only) way to plan a space burial is to get in touch with one of the private space companies that routinely plan these missions. They will help you navigate any permits you need, and will often guarantee a complimentary second mission if their first mission is unsuccessful. 

It may be a few years before a spot clears up. Booking well in advance can help ensure that you get the lowest possible price for a given mission. Some companies require the full amount upfront and others may allow you to make a deposit and get on a payment plan. 

Thanks to expanding interest in creative burial options, space burials are a real option for a lot of people. If you or your loved ones have ever looked up at the stars and wondered what it would be like to fly high, it may be within your reach. 


Sources

  1. “Memorial Spaceflight Experiences.” Celestis, Celestis, 2019, https://www.celestis.com/experiences-pricing/
  2. “Celestial Services.” Elysium Space, Elysium Space, 2019, https://elysiumspace.com/product-category/celestial-services/
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