The Business of Space Funerals

In November 2015 near the beaches of Hawaii, the latest incarnation of a military rocket dating back to the early 1960s called the Super Strypi launched its inaugural voyage.

At first operations appeared normal. The rocket lifted off, departed the white sands, began spinning, which stabilizes the craft, and seemed destined for a planned orbit about 260 miles above the planet. But about a minute after takeoff something went wrong –– the Defence Department doesn’t share specifics –– and the Super Strypi came crashing back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific. Failed rocket launches aren’t noteworthy by themselves.

But this vessel had a curious payload: human remains, packed into metal cubes. The hope was for the rocket to drop the space urn into orbit, so families could peer up at loved ones in the night sky, a funeral rite of the future.

Today the bereaved can pay to have remains sent here, to the moon or even to(wards) a galaxy far far away.Companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin make headlines with promises of accessible, commercial space flight that will open up amateur space experimentation, new communication systems and travel to Mars. Now anyone can monitor a satellite’s progress from a laptop.

Missions may go into orbit around the Earth, to other planetary bodies.

But the new space age is also opening niche space-borne products to the average person, like space-aged scotch and, yes, space funerals. Some space-y remains, such as psychedelics evangelist Tim Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, have been sent up already. But traditional funeral prices have increased to the point that a space funeral is in a competitive ballpark. We took a look at what it takes to catalyze a loved one’s return to starstuff, the interwoven supply chain of doing so, and the guiding trends.

“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.”Spin Long And Prosper Spock’s funeral While the thought of firing a loved one’s remains into space may seem excessive, the idea isn’t without precedent. Cultures throughout history tend to “see off” their dead in one way or another, whether through days of prayer or pushing corpse-filled burning boats to sea like the vikings.

Space has always been hallowed ground, akin to heaven, where humans imagined lost souls, the dead, heroes or gods, out there wandering among the cosmos.Today getting remains to space is a little less mystical. First there is the space burial service, like Celestis or Elysium, which takes payment from the departed family, receives the ashes and provides the container. The ashes are pretty benign and, as far as electrical, thermal or communication requirements, have none, according to Celestis’s Chafer.

“It’s closer to the wild west up there.”

They’re ashes. But the capsules must be secure, passing thermal, vibration and vacuum tests so they won’t explode. Chafer says the canister is technically a spacecraft. CubeSats do offer a DIY path to build a container for a loved one, but Chafer doesn’t worry that it will hamper future business.”You could also bury yourself,” he says. The space urn then needs a ride. Burial services go to companies that operate larger crafts destined for Earth’s orbit asking for a lift, filling space on their crafts.

In August Elysium announced a contract with Astrobotic Technology, a Google Lunar Xprize participant, that builds lunar landers and rents out payload space for companies and research organizations that want to send equipment to the moon — though they have not launched a commercial voyage yet.CEO John Thornton says someday his company will be “the UPS of getting to the moon.”Finally, both urn and vessel need a big engine to escape Earth’s gravity.

That’s where military launches like the failed Super Strypi or commercial big boys like SpaceX come in, launching rockets with satellites, scientific equipment, climate instrumentation and other payloads, towards their destination. Companies bid to get space on the flights years or more in advance. There’s only so much room on the crafts. So, to be clear, there are no dedicated space burial flights. The remains find room on crafts already on their way up.

Spock’s funeral

All that fuel isn’t burned for a funeral. But after the ashes secure a spot, “Then you sit back and wait for them to fly,” Chafer said. Of course rocket launches are still far from sure things. What happens if a rocket fails or never launches, and the ashes don’t make it?

Elysium, which had payload on the failed Super Strypi rocket, never answered our inquiries — though obviously the unsuccessful burial wasn’t their fault other than picking the unlucky launch provider. But Celestis’s Chafer says they’ll let the remains (if the family still has leftovers) fly again for free. Source: Business Insider

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