On a stormy December night in the middle of the Mojave Desert, SpaceShipTwo was unveiled. The sleek Virgin Galactic craft, which has been in secret development for two years, can hold six passengers and has windows on the sides and ceiling.
By 2012, Virgin hopes it will put the first passenger astronauts into orbit; tickets start at $200,000. The company is billing the craft as the world’s first commercial spaceship, but that is not necessarily true. Non astronauts, in cremated form, have been flying through space for more than a decade.
The first craft was an American Pegasus rocket, launched from Grand Canary Island, off the Moroccan coast, on April 21, 1997. The official goal was to put a Spanish satellite into space but bolted to the rocket was a canister with the ashes of 24 people, in separate aluminum capsules. They contained the 1960s drug icon Timothy Leary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and a four year-old Japanese-American boy who apparently, “loved to talk about the stars.” The post-mortem flight was organized by Celestis, a Houston-based company; the cost for a capsule was $4,800.
Since then Celestis has sent the cremated remains of hundreds of people, from 14 different nations, into space. Remains are put in a capsule and placed in a rocket that travels 70 miles above the surface of the earth—space technically begins at mile 62—before descending. Fifteen minutes after take off, the payload parachutes to the ground where it is recovered and validated as actually having been in space. The capsule is returned to the family as a keepsake.
Prices vary depending on how many grams of cremated remains are launched and the number of passengers per flight. The cheapest option, at $695, is the Capsule Option, which launches one gram of remains into space. The price includes a professionally produced DVD and a personalized online memorial. With the Module Option, seven grams can be launched, for $1,390. Sharing the ride with another capsule of cremated remains reduces prices considerably. “Cremated remains of first participant safely stored in a safe deposit box at a Houston, Texas bank location until second participant’s time of need,” reads the Celestis website.
Although former astronauts and Star Trek characters make up an interesting segment of the company’s clientele, they have flown many less space-related folks into orbit too. On Earth Rise 3, launched earlier this year, was LeRoy Arnold Dickens Jr., who had an encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry and military tactics; his mother was a member of the Muromoto samurai clan, whose lineage extends back to the tenth century. On the Millennial Flight, launched in 1999, was Robert Hollis Hensleigh, founder of the Hensleigh Corporation, which manufactured optical lenses for NASA simulators, lighting systems for military helicopters and the instrument panel on DeLoreans. Theresa Robinson, who was born in Detroit in 1920 and spent much of her life directing a resource center for recovering alcoholics, was launched into space in 1998.
Charles Chafer is the co-founder and president of Celestis. His worldly and otherworldly accomplishments are noteworthy: he has made significant advances in solar sail technology, he created a satellite-based interactive videoconferencing network for telemedicine and distance learning and in the late 1990s he broadcast a series of abstract messages by radio telescope to alien civilizations.
His latest project is equally eyebrow-raising, Celestis wants to launch payloads containing cremated human remains to the moon. They aim to begin in 2011, but actually performed a sort of test-run more than a decade ago.
In 1998, a portion of the cremated remains of legendary astronomer Dr. Eugene Shoemaker were placed in a Celestis capsule and attached to NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft. On July 31, 1999, with the completion of the craft’s mission, it was intentionally impacted into the Moon’s South Pole, making Shoemaker the first human being ever laid to rest on another celestial body.