Human remains launched into space come back to earth as shooting stars

A look at the emerging space burial trend

Photographers on the roof of the Vehicle Assembly building capture the launch and rocket boosters landing of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy at the Kennedy Space Center on June 25, 2019. The rocket launched 24 satellites, along with the partial remains of 152 people. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Photographers on the roof of the Vehicle Assembly building capture the launch and rocket boosters landing of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy at the Kennedy Space Center on June 25, 2019. The rocket launched 24 satellites, along with the partial remains of 152 people. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (Associated Press)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Family and friends gathered early Tuesday morning to watch the remains of their loved ones launch into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, lighting up the night sky above the Space Coast.

The Falcon Heavy rocket launched at 2:30 a.m. with 24 satellites on board and the partial remains of 152 so-called participants sent to space in memoriam.

The individuals' remains were enclosed in small steel capsules inside a General Atomics Orbital Test Bed satellite.

The space memorial service is provided by Celestis Memorial Spaceflight.

Charles Chafer, the co-founder and CEO of Celestis, ​​​​​​traced the idea back to science fiction writing. The company was founded 25 years ago and began its first mission in 1997. Since then, the company has rented out the room on satellites from a variety of launch vehicle providers, including SpaceX, to take human ashes to space.

The satellites usually orbit for seven to 25 years before “the laws of physics take over and the satellite reenters the atmosphere,” said Chafer.

Family members can track the satellite online before it eventually burns up in entirety, “sort of an ashes to ashes … blazing like a shooting star," Chafer said.

The cost of sending a small vial of ashes to space is $5,000, which, according to Chafer, is about half the cost of an average U.S. memorial service.

Family of the “participants” on board for Tuesday's launch were invited to a three-day event that included a tour of Kennedy Space Center, a memorial service and a dinner before watching the rocket take off.

Tuesday's launch included remains of former NASA astronaut William R. Pogue, and of a professional Japanese baseball player and a space enthusiast.

In 2008, the company took “Star Trek” actor James “Scotty” Doohan to orbit.

Celestis has four missions planned over the next two years and has already completed 16 missions since its founding, serving people from 25 countries and counting.

Companies providing this type of memorial service are on the rise. There are laws in place, however, including federal aviation space debris rules, in the U.S. and there are United Nations treaties that help to regulate space debris. 

“We carefully engineer our mission plans so that we aren’t released into orbit,” Chafer said. “We are always riding a satellite that is already heading to space.”

Other companies in the alternative memorial business, including Elysium Space which ClickOrlando.com interviewed in 2017.

Elysium Space Chief Executive Officer Thomas Civeit got into the space memorial business after working on NASA missions. The company provides two space memorial packages to choose from, including the Shooting Star Memorial, which “delivers a symbolic portion of your loved one's remains to Earth's orbit, only to end this celestial journey as a shooting star,” at a cost of $2,490.

As part of the service, family and friends will be able to track the ashes with a mobile app as they orbit the Earth for about two years.

For $9,950, Elysium Space also offers a lunar memorial package which brings “a symbolic portion of remains to the surface of the moon.” Those remains will ride-share on with Astrobotic's robotic mission to the moon.

“Over the last 50 years, family needs have been transitioning from funeral rituals to life celebration ceremonies,” Civeit said in an email. “Cremation is on the rise, about 50 % in the U.S., and there is a need for new inspiring services.”

This niche field is relatively new and, as any rocket scientist knows, launch success has a certain variability. To this day, Celestis has experienced two flight failures, leading the company to provide for free other launch opportunities for families who lost their remains on those flights.

On July 16, News 6 will host a special honoring the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, including a look back at space history as well as future plans. Check back for more space coverage at ClickOrlando.com/space.