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The Space Race for Lunar Funerals

"The time to change the vision of death from the underground to the celestial is now," says Elysium, a company trying to make lunar burials a reality.

Photo courtesy of Elysium Space

When US Army Infantry Soldier Steven Jenks was deployed in Iraq, he used to get letters from his mother signed like this: "No matter how lonely you feel and how far you are, always look at the moon and know I am with you. I love you to the moon and back."

So when his mother died of lung cancer, Jenks thought it befitting to send her remains to the moon. "I will know that she is looking down on my family and maybe they won't feel so alone," he said in a statement.

Jenks is the first client of Elysium Space, a company that offers "celestial services to honor and celebrate the life of someone you love." (In other words, they launch small amounts of cremated remains into space.) In a press release, Elysium said: "The time to change the vision of death from the underground to the celestial is now."

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Elysium isn't the only company vying to make lunar memorials a reality. Another company, Celestis, worked with NASA before announcing in 2008 that they were planning a service that would send a one-gram capsule filled with cremated remains into space for $12,500. Elysium charges $11,950 for an equally tiny capsule (the average cremated adult weighs four to six pounds, so one gram is extremely small), although they've announced that the first 50 reservations for the lunar memorial service can pay a discounted price of $9,950. Elysium would send remains to the Lacus Mortis region of the moon, which fittingly translates to "Lake of Death."

Engraved capsules for cremated remains. Photo courtesy of Elysium Space

Space travel for the dead isn't actually new. The first set of cremated remains to fly into space belonged to Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry, which were sent aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1992. Five years later, Celestis made the first commercial memorial flight with a rocket carrying a capsule of ashes sent into Earth's orbit. Since then, orbital service has become a company staple, together with the more affordable suborbital missions that fly into areas with zero gravity before being returned back to the next of kin. Elysium also offers an orbital service at half the price of Celestis, with the first mission in late 2015 already sold out.

Indeed, cremated remains have already reached parts of the galaxy that living humans haven't. NASA's New Horizons probe, which went as far as Pluto, contains the cremated remains of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, who died in 1997. For journeys even farther out, Deep Space memorial options are already being advertised for those wishing to send cremains outside the Earth's solar system—although neither Celestis nor Elysium has actual flights yet on the books.

Elysium would not be the first company to complete a successful lunar burial. In 1999, a vial with an ounce of the cremated remains of NASA geologist Eugene Shoemaker was attached to the space agency's Lunar Prospector science craft that crashed into a moon crater at 3,800 mph. The agency's partner for the service was Celestis. Shoemaker had been involved with NASA for decades, though a health condition kept him from traveling to space himself. He died in a car crash in Australia while crater hunting in 1997, after which his wife and NASA colleague Carolyn Porco spearheaded the effort to send him into space. He became, in the words of Porco, "the very first human inhabitant of Earth to be laid to rest on another celestial body."

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As it stands right now, the commercial lunar memorial services remain in preorder phase. That's because the transport flights for both providers still have dates that are up in the air. While governments in the past have sent probes to land on the moon, there aren't any state-funded missions coming up in the next few years. Instead, hopes for lunar burial services largely rest on the success of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition that offers $30 million in prize money to teams from all over the world that are able to successfully launch a rover that can land on the moon with private funding of 90 percent or more. Elysium's spacecraft provider Astrobotic, which has contracts with both Elysium and Celestis, is among the contestants. So is Moon Express, which Celestis has an agreement with, but Elysium doesn't. (In an email, Moon Express added that their business model is "not dependent" on the Google Lunar XPRIZE and that they are committed to their goal regardless of outcome in the competition.)

There's a certain coolness factor about looking at the moon and knowing a piece of your loved one is there, which is why Celestis's co-founder Charles Chafer sees huge potential for growth in the lunar funeral market. The biggest obstacle, he says, is pricing (the median cost of a funeral, including embalming, a casket, and funeral home fees, is around $7,000; both Celestis and Elysium's services cost over $10,000). "The lunar option currently is priced in excess of the average cost of a US funeral, somewhat limiting the popularity of the service," he said. He believes the "global addressable market" is currently about 1,000 per year, though he says that could grow hugely as "the ability to reach the moon grows more routine."

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