After Earl and Patty Mills lost their son Robert at the age of 26, they began searching for a special way to honor his outgoing personality, global perspective, and passion for space exploration. Ultimately, they chose to send a few grams of Robert’s cremated remains on a memorial flight offered by Celestis, a pioneer in the business of space burials. It was literally an “out-of-this-world” experience and it meant the world to Robert’s family.
If your family chooses to have a part of you fired aloft on one of these packages, you’ll be in good company. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, astronaut Bill Pogue, space settlement advocate Gerard K. O'Neill, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife, actress Majel Barrett Roddenberry—all have participated in space burials offered by Celestis, or will be on future flights. Despite other up-and-comers, it’s still the first and only private entity to have successfully launched a memorial spaceflight. Family and friends I spoke with reported a feeling of euphoria as they watched the rocket climb into the sky, carrying their loved ones’ ashes.
Flying as a secondary payload on a variety of commercial carriers, Celestis offers several options (or “experiences,” as the company calls them) ranging from “Earth Rise,” a suborbital flight that brings the capsule back to Earth for $1,250, to Voyager, which aims to propel a capsule into deep space, ultimately orbiting around the Sun, for $12,500. (According to the company, the first memorial flight to deep space will be offered in 2019.)
Participants receive a CD record of the service that precedes the launch and a flight certificate certifying that their loved one made it into space. Celestis also plans to offer flights of DNA from living people in the near future.
The best reason for putting down your deposit might be the experience of those who attend the launch, similar to what Earl and Patty Mills describe. Coming together as strangers from all walks of life and locations, people share their stories at the service before the flight, then gather to observe the launch. Just as their loved ones fly on the same spacecraft, the observers find common ground as the rocket lifts off.
“We saw people like us and people who were very different,” Patty told me. “On our first flight, we met a lawyer and her partner dressed in leather with spikes on their jackets. We didn’t expect to have much in common with them, but found out she had lost her son, and we immediately bonded.”
David Livingston, founder and moderator of The Space Show, sent some of his mother’s ashes on three different flights, and has scheduled a fourth that is intended to eventually travel to the Moon, going into lunar orbit or landing on the surface. So far, only one person's ashes have been buried on the Moon: astronomer and geologist Eugene Shoemaker. (In that case, NASA provided the ride to the Moon, and Celestis the capsule.)
Livingston told me that the positive feelings at the launches are palpable, and compared it with the Overview Effect, a feeling of connectedness experienced by astronauts when viewing the Earth from orbit or the Moon.
“There is a kind of Overview Effect experience when the rocket lifts off, not that we were out there seeing the Earth from orbit, but in a sense of unity and oneness among participants coming from so many different backgrounds and cultures,” Livingston told me.
Livingston noted that members of a motorcycle club attended one of his launches, and he doubted he would spend much time with them. Once the rocket had taken off, though, everyone felt a bond, forged by the common experience of helping a deceased friend or family member realize a lifelong dream. (Celestis has since become a sponsor of The Space Show.)
It was Livingston’s reference to the Overview Effect, a term I coined and a phenomenon I have extensively explored, that convinced me to look more closely at what Celestis was offering. Founded by veteran space activist Charles Chafer in 1994, Celestis has made 14 launches to date and expects to manage two to three per year going forward.
In the mid-1980s, Chafer worked with former Mercury astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton, when space commerce was young. “Two aerospace engineers and a funeral director tried to make a go of it with a company called ‘Celestis,’” Chafer told me. “They went under and I got their permission to use the name. I wanted to create a space company that would have a demand for its product right away, and that’s how Celestis was reborn.”
Although Celestis is the only private company offering full memorial spaceflights today, there are others trying to break into the space burial business, including Elysium Space and Orbital Memorials.
When I asked Chafer about the experiences reported by the Mills family and Livingston, he said, “I think they have it right. There’s a wonderful feeling of camaraderie and closeness on the launch pad that is gratifying to see. It’s not like a funeral at all. It’s really quite a joyful celebration.”
In fact, multiple missions appear to be the norm, and for different reasons. Earl and Patty Mills booked three flights, a second so that both of their daughters could have capsules containing Robert’s ashes that had been into space, and a third “just for fun.” The family says they now have a special kind of closure with Robert and his passing.
The advent of memorial spaceflights coincides with the recent surge of non-governmental activity in the space environment. Space has become more personal, private, and sacred.
For years, there were many people like Robert, who wanted to fly in space, but never got the chance.
Now Celestis offers a range of alternatives and anyone can, like Robert, become what Earl Mills calls an “Ashtronaut.’”
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