As New Horizons, the first spacecraft NASA's sent to Pluto, begins its encounter with the dwarf planet today, it carries with it some special cargo: the cremated body of Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh, who died in 1997, discovered Pluto in 1930, so it's fitting that NASA decided to included his remains on the first mission to the dwarf planet when it launched the probe back in 2006, with the blessing of his family.
Still, this space burial is unusual for NASA—and certainly for the rest of us—but it's actually not all that unusual for the private space travel industry. In fact, the remains of dozens of men and women have been fired into space over the last 20 years, many of which are still orbiting us today, as I found out chatting with the man who sent them there.
NASA generally doesn't perform space burials. They've only participated in three, not counting Tombaugh's. The first was in 1992, when one of the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia brought some of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's ashes aboard as a personal effect before returning the remains to Earth.
This past December, at the request of coworkers and family, NASA included the remains of Patrick O'Malley, an aeronautical engineer, on the test launch of Orion—the ship it hopes will one day take people to Mars. O'Malley worked on Orion for more than a decade but died of an undiagnosed brain illness before he could see the project to fruition. Since it was a test launch, his remains were also brought back to Earth.
But that's nothing compared to the treatment given to Gene Shoemaker, the astrogeologist NASA helped to "bury" on the moon. Shoemaker—who discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet—died in a car accident in 1997. After his death, one of his colleagues at the University of Arizona proposed the idea of having Shoemaker's remains sent to space. With the exception of Roddenberry, NASA hadn't done anything like that before, so they turned to a company that had: Celestis, Inc.
The Texas-based company made headlines when it launched the remains of 24 people—including astrophysicist Gerard O'Neill, author Timothy Leary, and some more of Roddenberry's ashes—into space.
"They wanted to make Gene Shoemaker the first man buried on the moon and NASA's response was 'well, we don't do that but we know these guys down in Texas that do,'" Charles Chafer, co-founder of Celestis, told me over the phone.
Working with Celestis, NASA brought Shoemaker's remains aboard the Lunar Prospector, which orbited the moon creating detailed surface maps before dropping down into a lunar crater at the end of the mission. Shoemaker's ashes are still aboard the spacecraft, in the middle of a crater on the moon.
Celestis has been doing space burials—or memorial spaceflights, as they call them, since the remains often are returned to Earth—since the mid-90s. Rather than pay for expensive launches themselves, Celestis hitches their "passengers" a ride on existing rocket launches that are doing things like sending satellites into orbit.
"A primary satellite purchases the rocket—that's the guy that pays the $100 million to fly. But these rockets almost always over-perform and so they've got secondary space available, which we purchase," Chafer explained to me.
And yes, they're available to the public. If you're interested in a space burial, for $1,000, you can send a loved one's ashes 100 km into space. The catch is that the cargo is then shed by the rocket and comes back to Earth via parachute—Celestis collects the capsule and gives the remains back to the families.
For $5,000, you get a longer trip, riding on a satellite orbiting the Earth for anywhere from a few months to a few centuries—Celestis doesn't get much say in the matter, it's up to the primary satellite.
"We go where the primary goes. Some of our early missions are scheduled to be up 700 years or so," Chafer said.
But for $12,500, you can get the ultimate space burial: firing your remains into deep space, never to return to Earth.
Over the years, Celestis has sent dozens of people's earthly remains into space, from science fiction writers, to actors—the remains of James Doohan, who played Scotty in the original Star Trek series, have been up three times—and ordinary people who simply had a special fascination with or love of space exploration.
Chafer himself hopes to have his ashes rocketed off the planet after he dies. He jokes that it's because he's a Baby Boomer, and that his generation wants to do everything differently, but there's a more humble goal behind all these dead men and women floating around in space. Celestis is just one arm of a larger corporation that seeks to increase the availability of private space travel. Along with seeing a market for this particular service, Chafer started Celestis because he saw it as a way to give people a somewhat affordable way to participate and contribute to space exploration.
"I like the idea that by me paying some money to have this service, I'm increasing the demand for commercial space activity," he told me. "I'm broadening, in my little way, humanity's movement into the cosmos."