Google+

BBC Future

Space Station

Space burials: Dying to go into orbit

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Live long and prosper
    The death of Spock in the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan shows a space-age equivalent of a burial at sea. (Copyright: Rex Images)
  • Space pioneer
    The creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry (second from right) was one of the first people to have some of their remains blasted into space. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Turn on, tune in
    A sample of the ashes of Timothy Leary, the Harvard Professor known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs like LSD, were also onboard. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Time capsule
    Their ashes were packed into tiny lipstick-sized tubes for launch, similar to those used by hundreds of people over the last 15 years. (Copyright: Celestis)
  • Flying high
    They were then blasted into orbit via a winged Pegasus rocket, launched from an aircraft in April 1997. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Touching space
    Memorial sub-orbital burials, where capsules parachute back to earth, have also been undertaken for people like James Doohan, ‘Scotty’ from Star Trek. (Getty Images)
  • Return journey
    Doohan’s remains were joined by 200 people including those of Gordon Cooper, an astronaut in the US Project Mercury and Gemini programmes. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Falcon fail
    A later attempt to put both Doohan and Cooper’s remains into orbit failed when the commercial Falcon 1 rocket, launched by SpaceX, encountered problems. (Copyright: SpaceX)
  • Moon burial
    American planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker took one giant leap when some of his ashes were carried to the Moon by the Lunar Prospector probe. (Copyright: SPL)
  • Final journey
    Some of the remains of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, will take it one stage further when they fly by of the planet in 2015 aboard New Horizons craft. (Copyright: SPL)
Planning your funeral? If a burial does not cut it, several companies now offer to fly your remains into space. But Richard Hollingham wonders what motivates people to sign-up.

I was 12 years old when Spock died. Like everyone else in the cinema that had grown up with Star Trek, it was a shocking moment. Even today, the scene at the end of the Wrath of Khan remains poignant. Despite the ludicrous 1980s-style uniforms with corrugated collars and oversized lapels, when Spock gasps his final breath “live long and prosper,” my eyes still well-up.

Spock’s funeral is almost as powerful. The coffin is levitated along a track and fired from the Starship Enterprise. It is the space-age equivalent of a burial at sea. Of course, in the interests of safeguarding the Star Trek franchise, Spock cannot remain dead. It turns out he took the precaution of preserving his soul in the mind of Doctor McCoy and his body was reborn on the planet it landed on (a sentence which will save you the effort of watching the disappointing third movie, the Search for Spock.

But what was science fiction thirty years ago is now becoming reality. Just like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, you too can now be buried in space. Or at least a small part of you.

In the coming months, US company Celestis is due to launch its latest memorial spacecraft. The New Frontier Flight will be packed with lipstick-sized capsules, each containing up to seven grams of the ashes of participants (as Celestis terms them). The spacecraft will remain in orbit around the Earth for years, potentially even decades, eventually burning up in the atmosphere. According to the company: “Your loved one will venture into the final frontier as part of a real space mission”. Interesting, that they also use Star Trek terminology.

Stardust

Celestis is a pioneer in the memorial spaceflight business and you can track its spacecraft in orbit. As I type this, its Ad Astra flight is passing over Seattle. Occupants include the ashes of a Pennsylvania mother who always wanted to visit the Moon, the remains of a boy born with severe muscular dystrophy and a gram of a geologist from Montana. Together, the participants represent a wide range of backgrounds, achievements and ambitions. But they all have one thing in common: their love of space.

It costs $3000 to put a fraction of a loved one in orbit but there are other, cheaper, options available. A UK company, for instance, offers the chance to incorporate your ashes into a firework display. Another will fly a capsule of your remains on a weather balloon into the upper atmosphere. Alternatively, you could buy a capsule on a sub-orbital rocket, which will take your ashes into space and parachute them back to Earth.

But a few grams fired in a tiny capsule is hardly the same as Spock’s final voyage in a glistening futuristic coffin. So, for the more ambitious, Celestis is currently signing people up to have a gram of their remains delivered to the lunar surface. You could even get on board a planned interstellar voyage and fly alongside another portion of Gene Roddenberry.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the participants and their families who sign up for burial in space. And you cannot help but be moved by the tributes that accompany each mission. Nevertheless, it does seem an odd thing to do. Without wishing to come over all new age, we are all ultimately stardust. All the atoms in our bodies come from the stars and after our dying sun becomes a red giant and the Earth can no longer support life, we will once again end up as stardust. One day, our remains will be back in space. Why would you want them to get there any quicker?

Although I accept that these flights are a symbolic memorial, if you really want to go into space, or be involved in space, then you need to give some serious consideration to how you can do that during your lifetime. If the one thing you really want to do in life is fly in space, then re-mortgage the house and sign-up as a space tourist. Your children may not appreciate you blowing their inheritance on five minutes of weightlessness, but at least you get to experience spaceflight when you are alive (and it would be worth it just to see their faces when you tell them).

If you are young and bright, join the space industry or make a tonne of money and start your own – like the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk. Alternatively, get involved in the increasingly large number of amateur space projects and put your name to part of a spacecraft (a topic I will be returning to in the coming weeks). With space opening up, this is an exciting time. You do not just have to go there when you’re dead.

Which brings me to my other favourite Star Trek quote, spoken by a young McCoy in the latest film ‘Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.’

And you want to be buried there?

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.